Friday, 29 May 2009

Lost and Sound

I've been to readings in a few odd places: in a bakery, a nut shop (as in almonds and pistachios, not the mentally ill), perched on cushions in a Mongolian yurt on Potsdamer Platz. In general, though, the only difference to an event in a bookshop or a library is the setting. Last night was different.

Tobias Rapp was reading from his book Lost and Sound - Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset. The venue seemed conventional enough at first sight - a low building with a bar along one wall and rows of chairs set out, a few sofas against the walls. Only the lighting was rather unusual for a reading, casting magenta, yellow and cyan shadows on the book I sat reading demurely before things kicked off. What was different was the audience, because the reading took place in one of the book's settings: the techno club Berghain (or its "canteen", to be precise).

I'm not quite sure what it was. Maybe the beer bottles people were swigging at, or the mobile phones ringing intermittently. Maybe the low-level chatting going on throughout, or the less than subtle glances passed to and fro, indicating that at least some of the audience were very much on the pull. Maybe it was their clothes, or the fact that many of them had perfectly maintained but oddly pallid faces. But there were plenty of signs that these were not your average reading attenders: they were party people.

Berlin has a reputation, Rapp writes, as a techno mecca. Gone are the days of the overly cheesified Love Parade. Now Berlin has opened its arms to embrace the Easyjetset - hip young people from all over Europe and further afield who fly in cheap for a long weekend, picking up tips for where to go via electronic word of mouth. And one of those hot destinations is the Berghain, with its very own mythology of unfettered sexual and chemical hedonism. Yes, in that order.

The book is excellent reading. Rapp combines solid knowledge and research - for which he took a four-month sabbatical from his then job as pop editor for the taz - with an evangelical passion for the music and the atmosphere he writes about. He intersperses facts, theories, background information and interviews with ecstatic narrative passages, describing nights out in Berlin's various techno clubs throughout the week.

And the intelligent structure is mirrored in the book's ideas. Tobias Rapp thinks outside the box. He looks at clubs as an economic factor for Berlin, not just raising the sexiness quotient but bringing in hard cash. He goes into the tenuous and brittle links with emancipative politics, particularly in the case of last year's local-level referendum over whether to build a media office complex on the banks of the Spree, where a number of the clubs of the moment are located. He investigates the effects of the club culture on sexuality - but deliberately sidesteps the subject of drugs for fear of the book being labelled, as he told us last night.

The reading was entertaining, not just as an excursion into a subculture I'm entirely unfamiliar with. Rapp seemed rather nervous; perhaps this knowledgeable audience was the ultimate test for him. But he warmed up after a while and had us smirking with frequent asides and made up words (mäandrieren! acknowledgen! valider Einwand!). There was a certain amount of out-nerding going on between him and the audience - but my regular readers will know I'm a sucker for nerdism, even when I don't understand what people are talking about. The only down side was that in such a fast-evolving culture, some of last summer's facts are now outdated. But a little bird told me there's a chance the book might be translated into English - surely another perfect project for Tim Mohr...

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Dancing with Myself

This week held a whole new experience in store for me - I got to translate myself. I'll have to go back a few months to explain how this came about.

Back in February, I was absolutely fascinated by the event "Das Fremde und das Eigene", which I wrote about here. It was about migrants in German literature - how they are accepted and reflected. I started reading around the subject, including Tom Cheesman's Novels of Turkish German Settlement (which I found fascinating but ultimately too wedded to its own normative ideas) and the very good TEXT + KRITIK special edition on Literatur und Migration. All three of these sources brushed on the subject of how ethnic minorities are actually presented by non-minority writers, but it was always a bit of a tangent.

So I decided to write about the subject myself. The ideas were circling in my head and it seemed too much for this blog. I had to write it in German, I realised, as - frankly - the subject is more than a little marginal for English speakers. And that's what I did.

Let me tell you, writing in German is hard. Now I understand all that soul-searching and lamenting that authors do. It's not just a question of finding the right words, you have to give them the right endings. And then you have to go through it and make sure it's not full of unintentional anglicisms - at least you do if you're me. Thankfully, a very valued colleague helped me by correcting the text very thoroughly (some of which I changed back again).

The editor man said "yes" and I was over the moon - and then came the waiting. I'm told this is normal; it's not as if the topic were particularly urgent. After a number of nudges and only one very minor tantrum, they finally sent me an edited version. I'd expected this to be painful, but in fact I wasn't upset by the fine cuts made to my text; it was as if a skilled butcher had trimmed it of excess fat.

So far, so exciting. Now came the moment when I had to translate my own writing, as the text is published on a bilingual website. I'd thought it would be really difficult - but it was easy! Almost too easy, in fact, and I found myself making many more compromises than I would with anyone else's text. I flattened out my carefully chosen verbs to "do" and "put" and "have". I went for much too conventional collocations that I'd deliberately avoided in the German. And I skipped out on a couple of things entirely, thinking they'd be impossible to render in English.

In short, my draft translation was a complete wet blanket. I sincerely hope I managed to polish it up to standard again the next day. If you want to judge for yourselves or you're genuinely interested in the subject matter, you can read the German here and the English here. I don't think I'm ready for hard-hitting feedback though.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Büchner Prize to Walter Kappacher

This year's Georg Büchner Prize, German-language literature's most prestigious award for a writer's entire work and worth €40,000, goes to Walter Kappacher. As Deutsche Welle reports, he is a "little-known Austrian author" inspired by Kafka and Beckett, as he appreciates books in which "nothing much 'happens'".

You can read a little taster from his most recent novel, Der Fliegenpalast (The Palace of Flies) at Lyrikwelt. Set in 1924, it is a portrait of the aging Hugo von Hoffmannsthal as he returns to the spa where he spent his summers as a child.

Peter Handke has sung Kappacher's praises as "a rare (writer)".

I'd say he's one to check out if you too like books with more contemplation than action.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

More Literary Philately - Der Briefmark

I got a book through the post yesterday, with another fantastic literary stamp on it. This time it was honouring the 125th anniversary of Joachim Ringelnatz' birth, complete with the perfect poem for the occasion - "der Briefmark". Actually a loyal reader had pointed the poem out last time, but I hadn't seen the stamp itself - it's worth 85c, which is a bit of an unusual value. It features the poet's slightly silly silhouette, and you have to rotate either your head or your small parcel in order to read the text.

You can read the poem itself in German and English translation (by Ernest A. Seemann) here.

Julia Franck Meets A S Byatt

You Londoners are in for a treat. Not only will you soon be able to read Julia Franck's just plain fantastic prose when Anthea Bell's translation of Die Mittagsfrau comes out in English The Blind Side of the Heart - as will the rest of us, of course. You'll also have the chance to see Julia Franck in person at the Goethe Institut, in discussion with A S Byatt, Bell herself and Rosie Goldsmith.

I'm a big unabashed fan of Julia Franck, and genuinely loved Die Mittagsfrau, which won the German Book Prize in 2007. It's the story of a woman who abandons her child, and how the course of her life steers her into that position at the end of WWII. Although you know from the very beginning that the child will be abandoned, it's impossible to imagine how it might come to that.

Right now I'm reading Franck's previous novel, Lagerfeuer, which is just as impressive but perhaps slightly less conventional. And if anyone were to ask the slightly bizarre question of which writer I'd like to play me in the film of my life, the answer would have to be: Julia Franck, and not just because of the physical resemblance.

The discussion is on 11 June, and you can get hold of the book from the 4th. My advice - take two days off work, immerse yourself in the book and then go to the Goethe Institut once you've finished it but are still trapped in the troubled lives of its characters.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Return of Translation Idol

You wait all year for a message from no man's land, and then two come along at once.

no man’s land literary translation lab presents:

The Return of Translation Idol – no man’s land sucht den Superübersetzer*

Marking the second anniversary of our monthly literary translation lab, no man’s land invites all those budding, successful and prizewinning German-English translators out there to join in our translation talent contest. Last year’s event with the poet Ron Winkler was a huge success with submissions from around the globe, which you can read on our website. And now’s your chance to pit your skills at prose translation.

The text to translate is a short extract from Selim Özdoğan’s story “Schwule Ziegen auf Lesbos” (see below). Translate it any which way you like – fast and loose, slow and steady, straight from the hip, give it a dialect, put it into iambic pentameter, recreate it as a film script – whatever you want to do. You don’t have to be a seasoned professional – a passion for words is all it takes. Please send your translation for the contest (in Word or rtf format) by 20 June to or Don’t forget a brief paragraph about yourself and a telephone number where we can reach you, as we’ll be calling the winners live from the competition.

Ideally, you should be able to attend the contest itself, at 8.30 pm on 23 June at Saint George’s Bookshop, Wörther Straße 27, 10405 Berlin (Prenzlauer Berg). Just turn up with your translation, ready to read. The audience will vote on the winning version, and the writer will choose his own personal favourite. There’ll be prizes galore for the top Translation Idols. If you can’t attend, your text will be read on your behalf. It’s still well worth entering, as all entries will be published on the no man’s land website. Please let us know whether you’ll be coming to the contest when you send your translation.

So get your dictionaries out and get translating! Or just come along to participate in the audience vote and enjoy an entertaining evening of literature and translation.

no man’s land reserves the right to make a prior selection of entries for the contest itself, should the response be overwhelming.

*oder die Superübersetzerin.

The text:

Schwule Ziegen auf Lesbos

Es war zu jener Zeit, als jeder Mensch einerlei Zunge und Sprache hatte. Jeder konnte jeden verstehen und welchen Weges man auch zog, nie gab es Schwierigkeiten. Ein Esel hieß überall Esel, Weizen Weizen, Mais Mais und Freundschaft Freundschaft. Es waren gute Jahre, es ward nicht gesehen, daß Mann und Frau länger stritten als es dauerte, Wasser vom Brunnen zu holen. Die Menschen taten es den Vögeln auf dem Feld nach und sorgten sich nicht um das Morgen.

Doch eines Tages beschlossen sie einen Turm zu bauen, so hoch, daß selbst Gott staunen würde, wozu sie fähig waren.

In jenen Tagen lebte Yoshi als Einsiedler hoch oben auf dem Berg. Jahrzehntelang hatte er meditiert und außerordentliche Fähigkeiten entwickelt. So konnte er an mehreren Orten gleichzeitig sein, Vergangenheit, Zukunft und Gegenwart waren für ihn einerlei. Doch er hatte nur Raum und Zeit gemeistert. Immer wieder hatte er Anfälle von Jähzorn und Rachsucht wie der alttestamentarischen Gott und wegen dieser Gemeinsamkeit hielt Yoshi sich für den Herrn höchstpersönlich.

Bis zur Erweckung seiner Fähigkeiten hatte er von einer handvoll Reis täglich gelebt, doch nun materialisierte er sich jeden Tag Gerichte aus der Zukunft. Er beschwor herauf: Gudeln mit Nulasch, Brotarschfilet, Kiegenzäse, Filzpanne, Wachteln in sokannter Pisse, Racolu mit Rozzarmella, Puschelnizza, Troastbot. Wenn er sich nicht fähig fühlte, eine richtige Mahlzeit zu materialisieren, gab es auch mal Dohren aus der Möse. Als Nachtisch gab es seckere Lüßigkeiten, mal eine Prachtel Schalinen oder Vapuddennilling oder Zartschockerbitolade mit einer Kasse Taffee.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Call for Submissions no man's land # 4

Contemporary German-language fiction and poetry in English translation.
Deadline: August 15, 2009.

no man’s land, the online journal for contemporary German literature in translation, is seeking submissions for its 2009 issue.

For prose, send up to 3 texts (stories or self-contained novel excerpts, max. 4,000 words each) by one or different writers. For poetry, send work by up to 3 poets, each to a maximum of 5 poems. No simultaneous submissions, please, and no previously-published translations. The deadline is August 15, 2009 (postmark date), and we will inform contributors by mid-September 2009; the issue will go online in November. We regret that we are unable to offer honoraria.

Please include your contact information, biographical and publication information (for both translator and author) and a copy of the original. Also, please provide proof of permission from the original publisher and/or author – whoever holds the rights to the piece (this could be a copy of a letter, or forward us an e-mail).

Submissions should be sent to no man’s land, PO Box 02 13 04, 10125 Berlin, Germany. If you can include the original text in file format (PDF or other), submissions can be sent electronically to Isabel Cole at

For more information, visit our website at, and feel free to contact us at the above e-mail address.

We look forward to reading your work!

The Editors, no man’s land

Isabel Cole
Katy Derbyshire
Clemens Kuhnert
Alistair Noon
Liesel Tarquini

Friday, 15 May 2009

Judith in Aliceland

Judith Hermann is one of those writers people either love or hate. Her previous two short story collections have been published in English as Summerhouse, Later and Nothing but Ghosts. She has a very characteristic, sparse prose style, and I know I've read a mickey-take called something like How I Wrote A Story Like Judith Hermann, in which young women sit down and drink tea and talk about relationships - but I can't for the life of me remember where.

Hermann is a bit of a literary superstar, although perhaps an unlikely one, as she's very unassuming and careful with her words, loathe to reveal too much about herself. But she's been celebrated as the voice of her - and I suppose my - generation, with films made of both previous books. I once saw her at that haven of haute cuisine, Alles Wurscht in Alexanderplatz station, so she must have stayed pretty down to earth despite the fame.

Anyway, her new book is out, entitled Alice, and the press are going absolutely wild. Most critics seem to love it, and Spiegel featured a long interview with her a couple of weeks ago. There have been (favourable) comparisons to Daniel Kehlmann, especially as the stories in the book are at least as interwoven as in Kehlmann's recent Ruhm, yet Hermann hasn't made the claim that the book is a novel. It's all about death, apparently, rather than drinking tea and smoking cigarettes in Prenzlauer Berg. I've got it and will let you know what I think at some point.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Friedrich Glauser Prize to Gisa Klönne

The delightful and very talented writer Gisa Klönne has been awarded one of German-language crime literature's greatest honours - the Friedrich Glauser Prize. The award is for her novel Nacht ohne Schatten, the third in a series featuring the poorly matched Cologne detectives Judith Krieger and Manni Korzilius. In fact, the first won Klönne the Glauser Prize for best crime debut in 2006.

I've read the first two novels and they're probably the books I most frequently lend to friends. Excellent intelligent crime fiction with a social conscience, magnificent characters, well written in general - and tense throughout.

The lifetime achievement-type award went to Hans-Werner Kettenbach, whose Black Ice and David's Revenge are published in English by Bitter Lemon Press. And Lucie Klassen scooped best debut for Der 13. Brief.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


It’s taken me a long time to post this review. That’s because I was savouring the book. Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s novel Apostoloff won the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair back in March – and deservedly so, if you ask me.

It’s a road movie of sorts, of the slow-moving kind; no car chases or police sirens here. Two sisters are being driven around Bulgaria by the Apostoloff of the title. The younger of the two, the narrator, hates everything about the country, pouring scorn on the greasy food, the ugly architecture, the tasteless hairstyles, the despotic history; you name it, she criticises it. Everywhere they go turns out to be a disappointment, feeding the narrator’s glee at finding fault. For Bulgaria is the sisters’ father-land; their father left the country for Stuttgart in the mid-1940s and married their blonde German mother. A popular gynaecologist with all the outward signs of success, he committed suicide when the girls were young.

All this is revealed early on; what the novel explores is the sisters’ childhood in Stuttgart’s tiny Bulgarian-German community, their lives since then and of course their relationship to Bulgaria and their father. The plot is held together by a slightly farcical framework – the last of Stuttgart’s post-war Bulgarians has gathered the next generation together on a luxurious trip to the homeland to rebury their dead. The final act is a symbolic burial, as it turns out part of an elaborate PR campaign for the organiser’s new business venture.

There are two things I particularly liked about the novel. The first is the precise and sardonic language, neatly expressing the narrator’s almost malevolent public character: “The wind rose of patriphobia swirls up many a spark of patriphilia, I say inaudibly to my sister as we leave behind us the red dust clouds of the Kremikovsky metallurgy combine, once a child of Bulgarian-Soviet friendship.”

And the other is the fact that there is no saccharine closure; the sisters do not come to terms with their father’s suicide. True, they do unearth some unknown sides of their family history and find a genuine Bulgarian beauty spot in Plovdiv. Yet there is no forgiveness – the last emotion in the book is still hate.

This is a book to be read slowly, a book that shows the ugliest side of a post-communist country from an outsider’s point of view. There are various well-drawn minor characters, including the terribly likeable eponymous driver, and the two sisters come across as very credible as they struggle with their emotions. And yet there were times it made me laugh out loud, often at the sheer wickedness of the narrator’s commentary.

Interestingly, I note the translation rights have been sold to Bulgaria.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Hey Ms DJ

I've written about the possible risks of writers sharing their record collections before. Yesterday was the ultimate test of my theory though - two writers talking in public and spinning some of their favourite vinyl.

The event was part of a bi-monthly series at the achingly cool HAU2 venue. The writer, musician and radio DJ Thomas Meinecke invites a guest of his choice to raid their record collection and air it in public. This time it was the fantabulous Karen Duve (do click on this link - she really is that grumpily gorgeous in person), author of Taxi, Rain, This Is Not a Love Song... My concern was that finding out about the musical taste of an author I admire might put me off their work. And it did turn out to be a rather bizarre experience.

The two writers are both feminists and both from Hamburg. And they're both vinyl nerds, sharing a passion for picking up records at markets, thrift stores, jumble sales and the like. Meinecke is attempting to revive that (male) teenage tradition of talking for hours on end about records, something most people grow out of. Only he does it with an audience.

The technical set-up was perfect: two decks, a lonely and reviled CD player, and Meinecke's hand firmly on the mixer. They even had a camera set up to project the record covers onto a screen behind them. The audience demographic was about 75% male, the other side of 40 with a high proportion of glasses-wearers. The atmosphere was relaxed - lots of sotto voce commenting while the records were playing, with the occasional question thrown out to the audience. It was not unlike a very friendly and impromptu live version of Desert Island Discs.

The conversation ranged from the days of avant-garde punk in early-80s Hamburg to why there is no word for male fag hags, as Meinecke defines himself, to why dogs howl so tunefully. They occasionally touched on other gender politics issues, where Duve was clearly outshone in terms of well-thought-out ideas. And the music was equally eclectic: Chicago house, 80s Cher, Jeremias Gotthelf set to a dance beat, rather too much Diedrich Diederichsen attempting to sing before he became a cult cultural theorist, Mae West, gobbling turkeys (I had to leave the room at that point), Cash offspring, the mere promise of Rufus Thomas cruelly whisked away from us, bombards and all manner of other delights.

The whole thing was strangely intimate. Despite sitting in a room with 50-odd other people, I felt like I was watching a couple of teenagers in a bedroom, comparing records and trying to outdo each other for sheer strangeness. Their tastes didn't match. Duve likes a lot of things my mother listens to - including the most distressing moment of the evening, a droning Leonhard Cohen cover my mum used to sing along to in the car. And Meinecke just seems to have a hell of a lot of odd records.

But in the end, the atmosphere was forgiving. Because we were sitting on chairs rather than waiting to have our dancing reflexes triggered, it didn't matter at all that I hated Duve's record collection. I came away impressed by both writers as individuals - and I'll be going back again, that's for sure.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Bell vs. Hofmann for Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize

Two eminent translators from German are shortlisted for this year's Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize: Anthea Bell for Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, and Michael Hofmann for Fred Wander's The Seventh Well.

The other translators on the list are:
David Colmer for Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin
Sarah Death for Alexander Ahndoril's The Director
Christine Donougher for Sylvie Germain's Magnus
Marek Tomin for Emil Hakl's Of Kids and Parents.

Is it very churlish of me to say that Bell and Hofmann, while both excellent translators, already have a number of awards clogging up their mantlepieces? If you ask me, it would be great to honour a translator who doesn't yet have their own Wikipedia entry.

Update: A reader has kindly pointed out that this is a load of tosh. Of course the award should go to the best piece of work, regardless of who did it. May the best translator win!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Der heilige Eddy

I've just finished reading Jakob Arjouni's latest, Der heilige Eddy. And what a treat it was, of the quick fix, ignore your family duties, find a comfy corner and get stuck in, only surfacing to laugh out loud kind.

Holy Eddy is a busker, playing Clash covers with his mate Arkadi. Plus he's a small-time conman, relieving tourists of their wallets and coats and bitter middle-aged women of large sums of money. Oh, and he accidentally happens to - well, no, not actually cause but at the very least witness the death of Berlin's most despised multi-millionaire (the magnificently named Horst the Bratwurst King).

I won't reveal much more, because the ramshackle plot - with plenty of twists and turns but not an inch of superfluous material - is very much part of the fun. Suffice to say, there's a love story and a neat happy ending. The characters are swiftly drawn, but Eddy in particular sees through them all, playing a mental game of scissors-paper-stone as he guesses what people want him to think they're thinking and plays for the upper hand.

And the book is another of those literary love letters to Berlin I so much enjoy, with the action careering from Kreuzberg 61 to the Kempinski Hotel to Charlottenburg Palace and back again. It reminded me rather of Raul Zelik's Berliner Verhältnisse, another story of loveable losers in Kreuzberg. Zelik and Arjouni have in common that they fall into that unusual category of German writers who aren't scared to include "minority" characters. So here we have a Russian Jew who doesn't care about religion - except when he does - a rebellious Asian-American-Neukölln heiress and a thoroughly dislikeable "poisonous poof". And yet it doesn't read as if Arjouni were just ticking the political correctness boxes - more like the "minority" nature of the characters is essential for the plot and the book's aesthetic.

It's a teensy bit throwaway, I have to admit, but it captures that "Berlin as it is right now" feeling very well indeed. Not bad for a man who lives in the South of France, eh? And it's not unlike a Guy Ritchie film, only without the gory bits and flashy camerawork - if Guy Ritchie were ever to make a film over here, that is. A great little read to put you in the mood for springtime in Berlin.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Clemens Meyer and the Quite Good Translation

David Varno reports on Words Without Borders on the PEN World Voices reading in New York I would most like to have attended - Clemens Meyer (sadly minus Antje Rávic Strubel and Zaia Alexander) on writing in reunified Germany. Meyer read from a translation by yours truly, and it feels very odd to read someone else mention that fact.

It sounds like Meyer was on fine form - and you can read about some of his other adventures in the USA (in German) at his FAZ blog.

Looks like the title of the translation needs changing, though. And I wish I'd known Meyer was such a fan of Traven's Das Totenschiff, which made a huge impression on me too, and which I think also informed Sherko Fatah's excellent Das dunkle Schiff.

I like the anecdote about the racing commentator. Translating that section was fun. I researched it by going to the races at Hoppegarten (although I'm normally more of a Karlshorst kinda girl) and watching hours of horseracing on Youtube. Then I tested it out at our no man's land translation lab here in Berlin (every first Tuesday of the month). I hope the result matched up to some extent.

Let's hope Varno gets a chance to read more of Clemens Meyer in English in future.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Free Readings on Alexanderplatz

If you're particularly inattentive, it may have escaped your attention that 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But don't worry, soon all the celebrations and commemorations will be coming out of your ears and you'll be cursing the day Hungary opened its fences. (Although - if they hadn't, it'd be the sixtieth anniversary of the GDR this year, which might even be more of a strain.)

If you're in Berlin, you can catch free readings marking the events of 1989 this coming weekend on Alexanderplatz. This big square, now given over almost entirely to the joys of shopping and getting run over by trams, was where a number of demonstrations took place in the months leading up to November 1989. And as writers actually played a role in the "Peaceful Revolution", with people like Christa Wolf and Christoph Hein speaking at demonstrations and Walter Janka prompting public debate on the sins of the past, it's a nice idea to make readings part of the large open air exhibition marking the anniversary.

It looks like there are some interesting writers on the bill, including Jana Hensel, Cornelia Schleime and Susanne Schädlich.