This piece was originally published in German in Volltext Magazin 3/2010 (a special on the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize). Below is my slightly jazzed-up translation.
I know, I know, we’ve heard it a million times before – translated literature has it tough in the English-speaking world. One magic number’s been doing the rounds for years: three percent of publications are translations, so they say (and not just De La Soul). Mind you, this figure is a pretty generous estimate and includes not only literary titles. Whichever way you look at it, 31 translations of German-language literature were published in the USA in 2009, putting German at third place on the list of the most translated languages (after Spanish and French). So nobody’s turning somersaults.
German-language literature – there’s not usually much of a distinction made between Austria, Switzerland and Germany – used to have a certain reputation in Britain and the States. Not much of a surprise here either: it was seen as heavyweight and serious. Every cultured individual had to have read at least Thomas Mann, if not Goethe and Kleist as well; as long as they had their dead white men covered. Other hits in this department – perhaps a little astounding for German-speakers – are Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Wolfgang Koeppen.
But cultured individuals are actually few and far between in the English-speaking world. I’d argue that the vast majority of today's readers don’t come to books with fixed expectations, whether they’re German, Icelandic or Mexican. As fewer and fewer children learn languages in Britain and the States, whole generations are spared the torture of reading foreign books in the original with a dictionary at the ready, only half-understanding them at best. And yes, we hopeless optimists can see that as a blessing for literature - as long as translations are there to fill the gap.
Occasionally, a translated book is a surprise hit. The case in point right now is Michael Hofmann’s translation of Hans Fallada’s Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Alone in Berlin). Penguin has already sold 100,000 copies in the UK and expects to shift up to a quarter of a million units. A very revealing phenomenon, as it shows what your average Brit does love about German-language literature: Nazis. Michael Wallner’s April in Paris, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum – many of the very popular translations from German deal with the subject, yet they never quench the seemingly endless thirst for new perspectives on the Third Reich.
Aside from bestselling writers such as Daniel Kehlmann and Ilja Trojanow, publishers appear to find it easier to match up to certain clichés than to go by quality alone. Just look at all those Jewish family sagas from Austria and hedonistic adventures in Berlin. So it’s not easy for younger writers to break into the market if they simply write about what they’re interested in. The implicit message is: English, Indian, American, Australian, Nigerian authors are writing about relationships – so why should we translate that kind of thing?
Translators, of course, are locked in a constant battle to break down that invisible forcefield. All the translators I know are absolutely passionate about “their” literature and do their utmost to get that spark of enthusiasm across. We’re literary missionaries and we won’t shut up until everyone’s converted. Our great hope rests in few hands: a few scattered editors actually versant in foreign languages at the major publishing houses, the university presses and the small independents. These indies consist of one or two crazy people who put all their energies into their books, which then sadly have fewer chances on an almost entirely monopolised market than big-name titles. In recent years, there has been a minor rash of new small publishers specialising in translated literature: Europa Editions, Open Letter Books, Seagull Books with a German and a Swiss list, Archipelago Books, Peirene Press – and soon And Other Stories, an initiative set up by desperate and daring translators to bring quality international literature to British shores.
And things really do seem to be changing slightly. New forums, festivals, publishers and prizes are springing up, fostered by the internet as it enables people with obscure passions to find one another. Now even Amazon has announced it wants to save the world of translated literature. With AmazonCrossing, the mighty company intends to identify strong foreign-language titles and publish them in English. Whether their logarithms will have the right instincts remains to be seen; they certainly have the necessary resources to promote and sell international literature. And maybe, just maybe they’ll show the major publishers that it’s worth taking a risk on foreign books. Booksellers at least agree – readers are looking for good stories, regardless of where they come from.
Up to now, however, editors seem to need a reliable crutch if they are to go all out for a translation. Literary awards are very welcome pointers, particularly in the UK, where both readers and the press are held captive by the Booker Prize. Yet the vast numbers of prizes in the German-speaking countries have even the greatest of experts scratching their heads. One reason why the German Book Prize was invented, with mixed results – two of four past winners have been sold to the UK so far.
The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize seems to be doing something right at any rate. Former participants really are making their way into English translation. Alina Bronsky is currently picking up rave reviews for Broken Glass Park (trans. Tim Mohr), Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew (trans. Ross Benjamin) was received with great respect, and Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repaired the Gramophone (trans. Anthea Bell) even made it onto a list of holiday reads in a glossy magazine. Other ex-participants Zoe Jenny, Julia Franck, Antje Ravic Strubel, Jenny Erpenbeck, Helmut Krausser, Richard David Precht and Juli Zeh have also made it to our shores. Next year sees my translation of Inka Parei’s Die Schattenboxerin hitting stores – OK, ten years after it was translated into thirteen other languages, but hey.
So it’s all the more pleasing that the good people of Klagenfurt have been getting all the texts for the competition translated into seven languages for the past three years – making it a tiny bit easier for derring-do editors and readers to find exciting new writing. This year I was one of the translators, which was a great thrill. I made discoveries, corrected prejudices, learnt huge amounts about high-seas fishing and realised: there’s so much talent out there! Anyone who gets as deeply involved with some of these texts as a translator can only hope that the US and the UK will soon overcome their fear of foreign literatures.