Thursday, 31 March 2011

Matthias Politycki: Next World Novella

Matthias Politycki certainly made the most of his stay in London as writer in residence at Queen Mary’s University in 2009 – not only appearing at one of Peirene Press’s now legendary salons, but also writing a beautifully illustrated book of poetry about East End pubs and real ale, London für Helden. And in between he must have convinced the Peirene nymph of the merits of his Next World Novella, which was promptly translated by Anthea Bell.

Peirene, as you may know, do excellent, short books in translation. I reviewed their first German title, Friedrich Christian Delius’ Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, last year. And just to take all the tension out of this review, I’ll tell you right now that this is another good solid piece of writing.

It’s a clever book that plays out on various levels – what’s that cliché about Chinese boxes? So I suspect the Chinese element of the story is no coincidence. The protagonist Schepp, you see, is a scholar of ancient Chinese literature and his wife is an expert on the I Ching. She firmly believes that when she dies, she will find herself on the banks of a huge lake, which she will have to cross or enter in order to truly put an end to her life. And now Schepp finds her dead over an old manuscript of his and determines to keep her body company while her soul makes its last journey – reading her notes on his writing as he does so.

Only it turns out that what she corrected was not an academic paper, but an ancient attempt of his at fiction, dating from his student days. A story of a beautiful but untouchable barmaid who turns all the regulars’ heads and gets one punter in a bit of a tizz. This piece of writing is teeth-clenchingly awful, I assume deliberately. Bell renders it in dreadful seventies hipster prose, all missing pronouns and coppers and petrolheads. This doesn’t endear us to Schepp. And nor, as the novella unfolds, do the details of his life.

Because it emerges that reality echoed fiction and Schepp himself was rather fond of a genuine barmaid. And as well as editing his gruesome prose, his wife Doro wrote him a thing or two in the margins of the manuscript.

As the stricken man reads he recalls the events as he saw them, starting from an operation to correct his eyesight that literally changed his outlook on life. And all the while Doro’s corpse is beside him, gradually slipping into rigor mortis (if that’s the right verb). Politycki very cleverly evokes physical disgust at Schepp’s dealings with the body, accompanied by growing moral disgust at his past deeds. We flit from his comfortable home made unpleasant only by the smell of his wife's corpse and the two smoke-ridden bars full of drunks. Again, these contrasts are clever stuff and add some great texture to the short book.

But unlike in Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, the story within the story comes across as a mere device here, a vehicle for Doro to comment on her husband’s misbehaviour from beyond the grave. I’m not one to care much about feasibility in fiction, but the likelihood of a man writing his own later story as a student is fairly slim, I’d say. What makes up for this is the twists at the end of Politycki’s tale, first revealing a more three-dimensional Doro than the shy, self-sacrificing wife as Schepp sees her, and then – well, read it and see.

Perhaps because of the chopping and changing from manuscript to framework and the short length, I didn’t get a particular feel for Politycki’s style. He writes poetry, but I can’t say I noticed any strong rhythm or sound until the closing pages, which are beautifully done. Otherwise, the writing seemed straight-forward and slightly old-fashioned in Bell’s translation, as befits the characters.

I haven’t read any of Politycki’s other writing beyond dipping into the pub poems. But I have to say I rather missed the humour of that book in his Next World Novella. It felt slightly dry, no doubt because of the characters and the subject matter. The only laughs it raised were at the awfulness of Schepp’s writing, which made me feel just as much of a snob as he is.

And yet it is that terribly impressive thing, an unrelenting look at relationships within a novella of ideas that leaves you thinking and turning the book over in your head for some time afterwards. Perhaps not one that will accompany me personally for months, but a fine read nonetheless.

Read an interview that went some way to endearing me to the author – about what it was like to be translated, among other things – on Politycki's website.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

More Benjamin and Pletzinger

At the risk of never blogging about anything except Ross Benjamin and Thomas Pletzinger, here's a link to a fascinating interview in the Iowa Review by Diana Thow about how the two of them worked together on translating Pletzinger's novel Funeral for a Dog.

Ross says: "I read the whole book before I translated it. I was aware of that interplay of two different voices that also sometimes overlap, sometimes diverge, that are clearly supposed to be distinct, and not just two different voices but two different modes of writing, one being notebook entries and one being a rough draft, a manuscript of a novel, and that was all there in the original novel, and it was there in my head when I was translating. The translator has to reproduce everything that he can, not just the meaning of the sentences but also the different voices, modes of writing, styles and registers."

And Thomas says: "I learned a lot about translating by watching Ross translate my book. It’s asked me to rethink my process as a translator as well. Because I called myself a translator before, but I wasn’t a real translator. Ross is a real translator. The project of bringing Funeral for a Dog into English let me see a real translator at work."

There's also revealing stuff about door handles and pizzas and ethnic labelling.

And while I'm at it, you can also read Thomas Pletzinger asking Sufjan Stevens if he's read his book yet, at BOMB Magazine.

Street Reading

A very sweet site showing what people read on the streets of Berlin and elsewhere: das echolot

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

On Reviewing Translations

The ever-excellent Words Without Borders is running a series of thoughtful pieces on how to review translations. So far we've had Daniel Hahn and Tess Lewis, both of whom translate and write reviews and so have a unique insight - but take very different stances. And also some basic guidelines from Susan Bernofsky, Jonathon Cohen and Edith Grossman. These are not dissimilar to the PEN American Center's reviewers guidelines for translated books.

As I've mentioned before, the German literary translators' association VdÜ has been organising events where critics, editors and translators get together to discuss the matter. The reactions in the press were mixed, with one critic in particular getting very defensive. As some of the WWB pieces show, translators often see the matter differently to reviewers - and aren't as aware of the constraints on critics as we perhaps should be. But as I see it, a review should at the very least mention the fact that a book has been translated, and from which language, and by whom. Daniel Hahn points out that translators hold copyright to the translated text, and for that reason alone we deserve mentioning in a review.

I'm no great friend of the "one-adjective acknowledgement" - in German that adjective is "kongenial" (perfectly matched) and in English "smooth". Or occasionally "mellifluous", which means much the same thing but sounds better. Funny that the Germans are so much more effusive in this respect, but perhaps that reflects their generally greater understanding of foreign languages. Yet despite this personal allergy on my part, I still prefer this perfunctory approach to the common tactic of ignoring the translator entirely.

The books I've translated so far haven't got a huge amount of review coverage. But here's one piece in which I'm not mentioned. And you know what? I'm with Daniel Hahn here - it doesn't bother me incredibly in this case. The book in question is not a literary title and the writing itself isn't what stands out about it. So there's no need to go into how well I did my job. Nevertheless, I would expect to have been acknowledged in the bibliographic details at the bottom. My dream review? Go here - where Charlotte Ryland does absolutely everything right, including tickling my ego.

I'd like to hope this discussion will take the fear out of reviewing translations for some critics and arts editors - and that in turn prompts more reviews in the English-speaking press.

Monday, 28 March 2011

On Berliners and Tourists

"Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want
to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself."

Jamaica Kincaid, "The Ugly Tourist"

Friday, 25 March 2011

Thomas Pletzinger: Funeral for a Dog

How hard is it to write a review of a book by someone you know? On a scale of one to ten, where one is like making microwave popcorn and ten is a three-course Christmas dinner with all the trimmings (plus a vegetarian in the family and a small, fussy child and someone with a nut allergy), I’d put it at seven. But there are rules:

1) You have to admit that you know the person, and how.

I know Thomas Pletzinger because I once wrote something unflattering about him on my blog and he remembered it verbatim. So when I was once looking for eloquent young German writers who could go on British radio (which then fell through because strangely enough there was shit-loads of other German stuff on the radio around the ninth of November 2009) and contacted him, he knew full well who I was.

I also know his translator Ross Benjamin because I met him at the Leipzig Book Fair some years ago and tried to persuade him to move to Berlin. He remains stubborn to this day.

2) You have to say whether you like the person, and why.

I like Thomas Pletzinger because he has impeccable party manners and always looks after me on occasions when I hardly know anybody. I hope this isn’t because he’s been building up to this review for the past year and a half. I also like him because he’s clever and entertaining and loves a good chat.

I also like Ross Benjamin because he’s a fabtastic translation nerd. Although I’ve never been to a soiree with him because he refuses to move to Berlin, I’m sure he’d have impeccable party manners.

3) You mustn’t assume the book is in any way autobiographical.

Or you will never be able to look the writer in the face again. Luckily in this case, the entire novel is one big warning against doing so.

4) You have to try and overlook points one and two while writing the review.

So I’ll start by telling you what everyone else I know in the whole world thinks about Funeral for a Dog. They bloody love it. All of them, with only a single exception.* One person I know even cited the novel as an example of how to write well about sex. I hope that’s not because everyone else I know in the whole world has been swayed by Thomas Pletzinger’s impeccable party manners. I strongly suspect it isn’t though.

A word or two about the nature of the book. Some of its appeal lies in the complex structure. The ethnologist Daniel Mandelkern has ended up in journalism, married to a domineering woman who is now also his boss. She sends him to interview the children’s writer Svensson, who lives with a three-legged dog on a lake on the border between Switzerland and Italy. But while Mandelkern is prevaricating and not writing his article and overstaying his welcome ever so slightly, he finds out more and more about Svensson – including a hidden manuscript of stories about a love triangle between him, Tuuli – who is in the house now with her son – and another man, Felix Blaumeiser.

So we intrude upon the lives of Mandelkern and his wife Elisabeth while he intrudes upon Svensson’s privacy, all the while assuming an ethnologist’s gaze to try and figure out this rather enigmatic man. The prose wavers between Mandelkern’s narration, divided into very short, concise passages, and longer stories from Svensson’s perspective. These latter sections, for me, were at times sources of unadulterated literary adrenalin, macho story-telling just the way I like it. And then we cut back to the dithering, ineffective Mandelkern, who is a magnificently irritating narrator, constantly complaining of headaches or drifting off the subject matter to contemplate his marriage. Which is where most of the sex comes in, and I agree it’s very well done.

So, while ultimately the plot is rounded and we follow a kind of paper trail to satisfy our curiosity about Svensson, the novel itself is cleverer than that. Yes, Pletzinger looks at how much of storytelling is about truth and all that kind of ‘book within a book’ old hat. But he also introduces another dimension, that of the ethnologist reader looking on from outside the book itself. While Svensson’s character is tight-lipped to the point of rudeness, Mandelkern reveals some very intimate things about himself, but almost more so about his wife. And while he tells us all about his ethnological approach, we ourselves are voyeurs looking on at their life together. What helps is that Mandelkern ultimately breaks all his own non-interventionist rules.

On a slight tangent here, I had a discussion with one friend about the female characters, particularly Tuuli and Elisabeth. I found them slightly two-dimensional, Tuuli constantly reacting to men and Elisabeth constantly controlling them. Whereas my friend maintained that Tuuli is actually in charge of the situation. I didn’t find that. But this discussion is interesting in itself, in that a) we could have been talking about relationships and shoes and stuff but in fact started on about female characters in Funeral for a Dog, and b) I do wonder if I’m less forgiving of two-dimensional characters when they’re female, because one might argue that Mandelkern and Svensson are equally caricatured for the purpose of the novel’s structure. You’ll note, then, that the book provides much food for thought.

One thing I didn’t like about it was all the deliberately exotic settings. Italian-Swiss lakes, 9/11 New York, Brazilian slums, Finland at New Year. What tempers this show-offy worldliness (of the kind that German critics love to love, especially when written by writing school graduates, of which Pletzinger is a prominent but very likeable example) is the emotions Pletzinger gets across – yes, magnificently – in these situations. And also Mandelkern’s rather cynical view; at one point he comments, “Svensson’s characters have endless possibilities and no obligations,” and he later compares his narration to Nick Carraway (although Svensson is not in fact his Gatsby). A sweet reference that makes you want to shake him, and possibly the author too.

So, the book is indeed very good. As I write this I’m beginning to appreciate how very good it is, in fact. Standing alone, the two strands would make two rather annoying and probably pretentious novels. Together, they make you think. Funeral for a Dog is not a book that makes you dizzy. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely a novel of ideas either, though.

While I enjoyed reading Ross Benjamin’s translation, I did feel it was almost slavishly close to the original at times. There were occasional phrases where I saw the German shining through quite clearly, as though Benjamin had taken the thinnest cloth of silk and laid it over Pletzinger’s naked prose, rather than tailoring the material to make it more English. I know that’s how he likes to work and I assume these were conscious decisions. Presumably they’re the kind of thing only I would ever notice anyway. All in all, though, the language the two of them have given us is a joy to read, at times sparse and unobtrusive, at others beautifully melancholy.

You probably ought to read it.

*Said exception could be considered a rival of Mr Pletzinger’s, but did in fact admit when pressed that Funeral for a Dog is “a good book, good light fiction”.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Martynova and Pletzinger Hit the UK

It had escaped my notice, but in fact you can read a short story by the award-winning German author Olga Martynova on the Guardian's website, translated by Dustin Lovett. And you can listen to Thomas Pletzinger on the BBC World Service too. I'll post my review of his Funeral for a Dog tomorrow.

BTBA Shortlists

The ten-title fiction shortlist for America's Best Translated Book Award is out now. And lo and behold, the book that I championed with bare-faced favouritism has made it among the finalists - Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, translated by Susan Bernofsky. Plus another German title by a dead writer which I haven't read, Ernst Weiss's Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, translated by Joel Rotenberg.

It's a little sad that Julia Franck's book The Blindness of the Heart (trans. Anthea Bell) didn't make it through, but on the other hand it's a more commercial title and obviously up against some stiff competition. And no German-language writers on the poetry shortlist either.

The winners are announced at the PEN World Voices Festival - which looks like it'll be a ball although the full schedule's not out until tomorrow - on 29 April.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Help Find Other Stories

For those of you who like to wield the power of your literary taste, especially if you're in or near London, you really need to catch up with And Other Stories. The new British publisher uses reading groups to help choose its titles - including my forthcoming Clemens Meyer translation, ahem. The next meet-up for the German reading group is on 27 March, but you can also read texts and join the discussion online. Plus there are sample translations available for those who want to have a say without learning the language first.

And you can read more about how it all works on a brand new Berlin-based blog by the name of Readux, where Catherine Stupp has interviewed founder Stefan Tobler.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

On the Pitfalls of Pro-Active Translators

There are now a number of programmes for literary translators that encourage us to be pro-active about pitching books to publishers. These are fantastic events usually lasting several days, which take translators on tours to German publishers, introduce us to writers and critics, take us to book fairs, and all sorts of delights. I've benefitted hugely from this type of programmes in the past, and am very grateful for the opportunities they've given me.

And I do indeed pitch German books to British publishers. I now have a handful of contacts to editors, who I bother every now and then with recommendations which often don't come to much. But occasionally it works out and the world becomes that little bit more golden. It's a wonderful feeling to have placed a book you love, especially if you get to translate it as well. Your very own baby, out there in the limelight dressed in a pink tutu and fairy wings, saying all its lines right (you hope as you sit transfixed in the auditorium, shaking with fear).

Yes, translators are well placed to spot great books in languages that editors don't read. And we have a slightly different ulterior motive to literary scouts and agents - of course we're ultimately in it for the money too as we want to bag the translation, but we don't want a cut of the fee. And while I know next to nothing about scouts and agents, I'll wager they occasionally push a book because they think it'll sell well, rather than because its sheer beauty and intelligence occupy all their waking hours.

So what we have is an increasing number of literary translators being pro-active, up against a publishing world that may be opening up slightly to international writing, but probably not at quite the same speed. One can only hope that the Chinese water torture method of endless drips will eventually wear down editors' resistance until the gates open and a wave of translated literature washes over us all. Like a leaky old lock on the Grand Union Canal, perhaps. Only in a good way.

And yet there's one problem, which I talked about with colleagues at the Leipzig Book Fair. How do we lone translators know we're not investing all our love and affection in a book that's already spoken for? We get all hot under the collar over a writer, reading everything they've ever written and poring over interviews to understand their motivations, our hearts skipping a beat every time we glimpse their books on a shelf. Yet especially around the big literary prizes, there could be two or three or more translators slavering over the same title. Tschick being a case in point, what with everyone in the whole world loving it, but I've felt a tad of translator envy over Clemens Setz too. And I remember some heightened emotions when Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize and it was unclear which of the translators who's worked on her before would get to do Atemschaukel.

The simplest solution is to contact the publishers, and possibly the writer as well. They should know if anyone has already got their claws into the object of our desire, or indeed if the rights have already been sold. But wouldn't it be wonderful if there was some way of communicating with other translators over potential projects on this level? I've generally experienced the profession as very supportive. We all work on our own so we do love to get together and talk shop when we can, and I've had valuable advice from various translators with more experience than me. It's just this one area where I sometimes feel like a teenager trying to grab a lock of Justin Bieber's hair, battling with a thousand other crazed girls.

Perhaps all we need is a listserve? And maybe the will to be open and honest and share our discoveries.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair

Scandalously behind the times, I admit, but here are the winners of the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, announced on Thursday. It's Germany's most important award of the spring season for individual titles, corresponding to the German Book Prize in the autumn. Except that it has three categories rather than just honouring novels: best translation, best non-fiction book and best fiction title - which can (and often does) include short stories as well as straight novels.

The non-fiction prize went to Henning Ritter for his Notizhefte. Ritter was humanities editor at the FAZ for many years, and the book is a collection of notes billed as "a conversation between the most independent thinkers from the Enlightenment to the present day, from Montaigne to Nietzsche and Darwin, from Büchner to Canetto, Jünger and many more – a cornucopia of surprising fruits of reading, drafts, maxims and reflections; with recurring motifs and themes, such as the role of pity and memory in today’s society or the competition between politics and culture in German history." So a proudly intellectual book rather typical of the highbrow tradition in German non-fiction. What's particularly pleasing is that it's published by Berlin Verlag, which is now trading as Bloomsbury Verlag after the parent company reigned in all its international offspring. I wrote about the issue earlier.

The translation prize went to Barbara Conrad for her new rendering of War and Peace. The judges noted "Barbara Conrad has identified Tolstoi's idiosyncratic narrative style and transferred it into vivid German prose. In addition with her expert commentary, the project constitutes a doubly impressive achievement: a translation of the work and a lesson on the age in which it is set." You can read her translator's notes (in German) on the website of the publisher Hanser.

And the fiction prize went - rather unexpectedly - to Clemens J. Setz for his short story collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes. At only 29, this young Austrian has already published two critically acclaimed novels (Söhne und Planeten and Die Frequenzen), won the Ernst Willner Prize in Klagenfurt (read the award-winning text in English here, trans. Martin Chalmers) and toured the UK and the US. I personally disliked what I read of Die Frequenzen, but again was unexpectedly bowled over by the sample story that you can download behind the link to the book above. Twisted and beautifully written, it made me instantly clamour to read the entire collection. And with Ross Benjamin and Peter Constantine having translated short pieces by him in the past and the might of the Suhrkamp Verlag foreign rights department behind him, my guess is it won't be too long before we see Clemens J. Setz in English. Rights are still available...

Apparently the judges were torn between Setz's stories and Herrndorf's road novel Tschick. But I only know that through a long line of Chinese-whispers-type coincidences and gossip. Don't ask for details... Certainly though, as I wrote last week, Herrndorf's book would work magnificently in English, and he too has a translatorly champion in Susan Bernofsky.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Blagging in Leipzig

Here I am, back from the blagathon that is the Leipzig Book Fair. While hordes of people amble through the halls collecting freebies in oversized paper bags that poke into other people's legs on the tram back, no doubt to be tipped out on the kitchen table at home and sifted through with 90% of the stickers, catalogues, sample chapters, bookmarks, flyers and general crap landing (at best) in the recycling, I perfected the art this year of blagging free food, drink and preferential seating.

It all started in Berlin with the Internationales Übersetzertreffen at the Literary Colloquium. Twenty-odd translators of German literature, including the very talented Shelley Frisch and Lyn Marven, were invited to Berlin and Leipzig for an intense taste of contemporary writing. I was invited to talk to them along with Cristina Vezarro, the founder of the brand new in-German literary translation blog Gemischtes Doppel. Hence free lunch, preceded by a reading by Benjamin Stein (whose excellent The Canvas is being translated into English as we speak by Brian Zumhagen for Open Letter Books), followed by sneaking in to an evening event without paying where the critic Richard Kämmerlings talked about his interesting-looking book on contemporary German writing, Das kurze Glück der Gegenwart and Ulrich Peltzer (whose excellent Part of the Solution is coming out from Seagull Books in July, trans. Martin Chalmers) talked about writing German fiction.

Then on Thursday I went to the award ceremony for the Alfred Kerr Prize for literary criticism. It was just part of the book fair, you didn't need an invitation, and there were free drinks afterwards, rather delicious sparkling wine. The prize went to my actual favourite German critic, Ina Hartwig, who is incredibly clever and has impeccable taste. The speech was held by the writer Clemens Meyer (whose excellent short stories All the Lights I am translating as we speak for And Other Stories). And it was really rather moving, sitting in an enclosure with lots of other literary critics hearing a writer's self-proclaimed declaration of love to a critic. Not something I'll forget for some time to come.

Now while I was sitting there I mentioned to an acquaintance that I wanted to go to the announcement of the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair not long afterwards, and expressed my envy for all those people who get to sit in front of the cordon while the ceremony takes place, rather than standing up and jostling for a good view at the back. And lo and behold, it's not what you know, it's who - he whipped out a spare ticket! Then it turned out that the entire hierarchy is actually three-tiered: there are the book-buying plebs standing at the back, the bourgeoisie seated in the middle, and a literary aristocracy made up of publishers and the like at the front, who have seats reserved in their names. And I happened to run into a very friendly member of said aristocracy, who invited me to be his +1 (the only item of useless paper I brought back with me is the label from my seat). I probably ought to say something virtuous like It makes no difference where you sit. It's all about the literature. But in fact I spent the entire time feeling very pleased with myself and savouring the close-up view of the judges, candidates and prize winners, imagining my face on the evening news and soaking up the rather tense atmosphere with all the people who had a stake in the outcome. I'll post the winners in a separate entry.

Thursday evening is always the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht, zillions of young-ish writers reading in a medieval dungeon-type affair. I enjoyed Selim Özdogan, Rabea Edel and Susanne Heinrich, then I got a free drink token from one of the above. I would have liked them anyway though. Other than that, the combinations were rather odd - the oldest author reading with the youngest, YA literature paired with very literary fiction, fairly experimental writing with a plainly autobiographical (but not uninteresting) report on a psychiatric clinic posing as a novel. Challenging.

Friday kicked off (more or less) with free drinks for translators. Fuelled up on more sparkling wine, I then wandered around aimlessly looking at books and getting lost and meeting friends and acquaintances and generally not achieving anything. Much the best way to cope with the hectic fair - all hazy and friendly and no inhibitions about physical contact. Ahhh. I shall do that again.

Dinner was on the Goethe Institut, in Auerbach's Keller of Faust fame. Which was full of other literary types eating dinner on expense accounts, rather than poodles turning into devils and the like. Later on to the reading by the German writers' football team, Autonama, who have an anthology out soon by the cringeworthy name of Fußball ist unser Lieben. To prove my loyalty to the team, I actually skipped out on an opportunity for more free drinks to attend. Which was amply rewarded by the discovery of Jörg Schieke, who read a story so awesome that it made everyone else look pale in comparison - even the collected odes to the members of the German women's football team.

And on to the Young Publishers' Party, which cost €5 to get in but was worth it. Dancing, star-spotting, small-talking, putting names to faces in the dark and slightly too much drinking. Ahhh. I shall do that again. My friend didn't want our photo taken, but you can see other gorgeous drunk publishing people here.

If you get a chance, you'd be foolish not to go next year. See you there!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Away with the Fairies

I'm going to the Leipzig Book Fair tomorrow and will return with prizewinners, gossip and book tips. I can tell already that it's going to be effing fantastic, by the number of times the events programme website has crashed while I've been trying to plan my literary itinerary. I've stopped counting.

If you feel the need for live-ish blogging, try Kolja Mensing at the Robert Bosch Stiftung blog, or impressions from the lovely participants in a Goethe Institut trip.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Guardian Goes German. Observer Doesn't

Honestly, you go off hobnobbing with translators, writers and critics for one day and miss the German books event of the year in the English-language press.

Go to the Guardian now for a survey of German books to read (lots of dead white men), a look at the dire German bestseller charts (depressing but interesting for the comparisons to Britain) and an interview with the charming German writer Thomas Pletzinger, who does his best to dispel the myth that there is such a thing as German writing.

Plus there's a review in Sunday's Observer of Johanna Adorján's An Exclusive Love. The piece is short, admittedly, but neglects to mention the fact that the book was translated at all, and therefore also the fact that it was translated by Anthea Bell. Letting the side down rather - as usual - those Observer people. Perhaps they should take a leaf out of the Huffington Post's book - where Nina Sankovich tells us she's been shamed: "I will go back through all my hundreds of reviews of the past three-plus years and make sure that the translators of each foreign tome are acknowledged for their hard -- and largely hidden -- work."

Friday, 11 March 2011

Baby's in Black in Glasgow and London

German graphic novelist Arne Bellstorf is launching the translation (by Michael Waaler) of his comic Baby's in Black - at the Glasgow Goethe-Institut on 15 March and the London one on 16 March. It's the story of Astrid Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe, suitably black and white for 1960s rock 'n' roll Hamburg.

Publishers SelfMadeHero have also brought out another German graphic rock biography, also translated by Michael Waaler: Reinhard Kleist's Johnny Cash - I See a Darkness. Or how about a graphic novel of Kafka's The Trial?

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick

Do critics not read young adult novels? I suspect not. Because the rave reviews of Tschick all seem to say that's what it is - a great YA title that adults will enjoy just as much, yadda yadda yadda.

Adults will indeed enjoy Tschick. Younger readers, though, are used to stronger stuff. Here's the story: neglected rich-kid Maik is having a dull and teenagerly time of it - unrequited crush, parents are crap, no mates, etc. Enter neglected poor-kid Tschick, the new boy in class and Russian to boot. Tschick steals a Lada and off they go, careening around the German countryside during the summer holidays and having adventures until everything goes pear-shaped.

Now the critics, being well-read and all that, were just as quick as me to spot the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn parallels. And some of them read The Catcher in the Rye into it too - though I didn't. I'm not sure whether that's because I've blanked out all memory of the book or because critics just love comparing any old thing to The Catcher in the Rye. That's fine, go ahead Mr Herrndorf, it's fun to spot the references and all that - but it's not going to score you any points with fourteen-year-old readers.

To get some more nit-picking over and done with, there are several other things that make the novel maybe not unsuitable but at least atypical for teenage fiction. To start with, the first main section takes place at a Gymnasium in Berlin-Marzahn. But I found this part of the book muddled - how old are the kids when, why are there dumb kids in the class, and why does one character move to the edge of Berlin when they're already surrounded by fields right out in Marzahn? It all suggested a lack of familiarity with the world of German high schools. Which probably doesn't go down too well with readers who spend all day at German high schools.

Secondly, there's not enough sex. There's no sex at all. In fact one character actually turns down sex. I've read a lot of YA fiction in the past year or so because it's one of the things I translate. So I read it in English for the tone and in German too. And every single piece of teenage fiction I've read recently has featured at least one sex scene - not necessarily Harold Robbins-style, but it's definitely a biggie. Because teenagers are obsessed with sex. Don't you remember? You were too. Yes, even more than you are now.

And thirdly, there's not enough action. I mean, there's plenty of action - car-stealing, accidents, shooting incidents, police chases, all that kind of thing. But Herrndorf tells his story too subtly. His taste and his humour are too grown up. So the police chase on the motorway is pretty tame because that's the way things usually are - the two boys end up being chauffeured away from their wrecked car in a top-whack BMW by a terribly nice but dim speech therapist, while the police creep along miles behind in their slower car. Herrndorf prefers playing for laughs and constructing clever plot loops to going for that instant adrenaline rush you get in a lot of books for young adults.

So if you're looking for a present for a teenage nephew, forget Tschick and go for Cory Doctorow, or straight to the DVD department.

But if you want to read a good book, you could get it for yourself. Because that last point is what makes the novel so endearing. The "road movie" part is delightfully meandering, feasting on the bizarre characters Maik and Tschick come across - a group of cycling aristocrats, a female Stig of the Dump, an ancient trigger-happy communist. So we jump from one odd situation to the next. After a while I stopped expecting the dramatic development we know from the beginning is coming, and started looking forward to the next absurdity. Herrndorf's humour, which I personally failed to get in his short stories, isn't the laugh-out-loud kind. But it's there, and it makes the rather bumbling characters and the novel as a whole more likeable.

Herrndorf writes well, with an eye for detail in his settings that I enjoyed. His narrator Maik has a voice of his own but doesn't use the kind of down-with-the-kids slang that feels just patronising. I was even willing to forgive Herrndorf for the conciliatory ending and the excruciatingly hip modern character-twist, which I thought wasn't well-prepared at all. The narrator may not have been surprised, but my disbelief came severely un-suspended at this point. But you know, coming of age, friendship, rebellion - it's all in there.

The novel's being heralded as the odd one out on the shortlist for this year's Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair. It is, and in a good way. It's a great lightweight read for adults. It would translate very nicely, perhaps doing as well as Alina Bronsky's pretend YA novel Broken Glass Park has in the States. Look out for a short story by Herrndorf (trans. Susan Bernofsky) in the next issue of Verse Magazine. And the book won the online poll for the award (although I was reminded of Kathrin Passig winning the audience vote at the Bachmann Prize and the hoo-ha over the Guardian's Not the Booker Prize). I don't think it'll get the proper award though - the combined competition from heavyweights Arno Geiger and Peter Stamm, not to mention my unexpected favourite, the up-and-coming bantamweight Clemens J. Setz, is too much.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist

The good people of Booktrust have announced the longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. And there are three German contenders out of the fifteen:

Daniel Kehlmann's Fame, trans. Carol Brown Janeway
Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, trans. Susan Bernofsky
and Juli Zeh's Dark Matter, trans. Christine Lo.

As they point out, there are a lot of independent publishers on the list, including the delightful Peirene Press who only do translated titles. This is a great way to call attention to their work, but it also goes to show how few major publishers bother with translations nowadays. I know there are editors at larger houses who long to do more translated fiction, and I hope the increasing attention going to international writing gradually puts them in a stronger position to do so.

The shortlist is out on 11 April, and the winning writer and translator will be announced on 26 May. They get 5000 pounds each and lots of little stickers on their book. And a magnum of champagne - not sure if they have to share that or there's one each.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Dangerous Translations

Quick! If you're in London you can still book for an event about translating smutty stuff at the South Bank Centre on Wednesday night. Featuring Shaun Whiteside and Polly McLean. Oh, and I see it's a live translation slam. I really want to see how a live translation slam works some day.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Everybody's Darling

They've announced the winner of the mere mortals' vote for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, and it's Wolfgang Herrndorf's Tschick*. Followed by Arno Geiger's Der alte König in seinem Exil.

And as luck would have it, I'm actually reading Tschick right now. So I can tell you it's a very accessible novel about a fifteen-year old boy who goes on a bit of a bender with his Russian classmate. I'll post a review soon, but I do have to say that it's fun, funny and moving. Plus literally everyone I know who's read it has loved it.

I did have to overcome a personal prejudice to read Herrndorf, though, I have to admit. Because a couple of years ago I sat at the same table as him somewhere or other, and someone or other came past looking for the distinguished poet, prose author and creative writing doyen Michael Lentz. Both Lentz and Herrndorf are tall and bald. So the person comes up to Herrndorf and says, "Are you Michael Lentz?" And Herrndorf says in the world's most arrogant tone: "No, but I am Wolfgang Herrndorf."

But hey, it would seem the guy can write. Follow the link with the asterisk for a sample translation by Jefferson Chase (who, it turns out, is also the hard-working translator of Daniel Domscheidt-Berg's tell-all Wikileaks memoir).

Update: You know how I said Herrndorf is bald? Well, he's not any more. Which goes to show that my irrational prejudices last longer than hairstyles. I saw a recent picture of him on his blog.

Goodies for Photogenic German Book Lovers

Actually, you don't even have to be photogenic. The German Book Office in New York wants your picture! Here's what they say:

Love German books as much as we do? Show us. Send us a picture of you or someone else reading a German book, and we'll send you a Frankfurt Book Fair coffee mug or Moleskin notebook. Send us a video like the ones our German readers made and we'll send you the mug, notebook, and a tote bag.

I don't know what they'll do with the photos, but I presume you won't find yourself on a billboard on Times Square.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Sorma kişinin aslını, sohbetinden belli eder

The closing words in the book Manifest der Vielen, in an essay by the journalist Hatice Akyün, are a Turkish saying. It translates as: Ask no one about their origin; they will reveal it in their stories.

But people do ask. It’s convenient; we think it helps us to understand others if we know where they’re coming from, so to speak. And perhaps it helps us to understand ourselves if we can define our own personal national identities. Certainly that’s what another journalist in the anthology recommends: Ekrem Senol is often asked where he’s from, and his answer is that he’s Turkish, even though he was born in Germany. He knows why he says it, he writes, and he can explain his reasoning if need be. “Think about your answer,” he writes, “and justify it for yourself, whichever way you decide. Your ego will thank you for it.”

So in this piece, I want to explore my own national and cultural identity – as a response to the Manifest der Vielen, if you like.

To explain more about myself than you may care to know, I come from the west London suburb of Ealing. The local council website lists places of worship for twenty-four religious denominations, from Ukrainian Orthodox to Hindu. In my class at primary school, I was the only child whose parents both came from England. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and our teachers took an open approach to all our different cultures, celebrating diversity in a way that was meant well but clearly passed down from colonial traditions – we celebrated Commonwealth Day on what used to be Empire Day, with all the children bringing in some item or other from their parents’ country of origin (except me and the Irish kids). We also celebrated the Hindu/Sikh festival of Diwali, although I suspect that was down to one particularly active mother.

Our religious education lessons taught us about all the major faiths – something I was amazed to find out doesn’t happen in Germany, where children get either Protestant or Catholic or no religious education at school. Personally, I’m an atheist in the fourth generation. I don’t believe that God exists, but I do believe very strongly that people should respect the beliefs of others.

With this in mind, I definitively reject the new interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich’s statement (made last year) that “the guiding culture in Germany is the Judaeo-Christian Occidental culture, not Islam.” And I can’t tell you on how many levels. First and foremost, I reject the idea that a state can even have a single Leitkultur or guiding culture. Go ahead, try and define culture. I wish you luck. And then try and find one culture that is core to everyone in Germany (or indeed any other nation). Secondly, calling Germany’s historical culture Judaeo-Christian is a farce and whitewashes centuries of anti-Semitism. And thirdly, nobody is claiming that Islam should be a guiding force in Germany. Just one faith among many. It’s here, it’s not going away, and there’s no good reason why Islam should not be on equal terms with other religions in Germany.

Which brings me to my own identity. Because here I am making demands of German politics and society. I’ve lived in Berlin for very nearly fifteen years now. I’m doubly disenfranchised – away from Britain for too long to vote any more, and not granted a ballot in Germany other than on the very lowest level, as an EU citizen. That means I can vote in local council elections and was once invited to take part in a referendum on parking zones in my local area.

I’ve lived almost my entire adult life here, since graduating. I have a German child; although she’s bilingual, her German is stronger than her English. Although she nominally has dual citizenship, she’ll have to decide on one nationality at the age of eighteen and she’s never lived in Britain. I read mostly German books. My friends are from all sorts of places but the largest national group among them is German. Recently, a British friend of mine adopted German nationality. It makes sense; and yet I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so myself.

And why? Because I spent my formative years in the UK. I grew up in a city plagued by IRA bombings, a city that celebrated ethnic diversity under Ken Livingstone’s GLC, a city where an army of homeless people slept in cardboard boxes while the financial sector grew and grew. Where subcultures blossomed and rents went up and up and up. When I left for Berlin in 1996, I was essentially an economic migrant. With me came the tail end of a tide of builders, many of whom got ripped off on the many building sites here where they worked cash-in-hand. Britain was just coming out of recession – and I had no desire to join the rat race. Plus I was in love.

Now there’s a new wave of young Brits over in Berlin, but I can’t relate to them. They came very much for the same reasons as I did – escaping from a grey economic situation with no interesting prospects to offer them to a more exciting, vibrant place. But there’s one major difference – they don’t speak German. They don’t have to. When I first moved here, even EU citizens had to prove an income in order to stay here. And in those days, that meant getting a job here. Which meant you had to learn a bit of German.

Now, EU citizens don’t have to prove their income to stay on – and you can work from anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection. As more and more English-speakers come, they build up their own cultures, opening cafés and shops and starting magazines and kindergartens and cabaret nights and – hey presto! There’s a whole infrastructure here. Which is great, don’t get me wrong. I just feel that many of these people are only really floating on the surface of the city, sampling the nightlife and the arts but not settling for good. And while that’s up to them and they’re free to move on to the next city at any time, it makes them different to me.

And why? Because Berlin is my home. It’s where I’ve chosen to live, because I love it and I have my friends and family here and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I want to grow old here. Reading the Manifest der Vielen made me slightly envious. Because while all of the authors are angry at German politics, particularly the constant demands for integration (read: assimilation), the anti-Islamism and the unfair nationality rulings, many of them still call themselves “new Germans”. I’d like to have that confidence, but I’m essentially a Brit who can very nearly “pass”.

I talked about the whole issue with one of my oldest German friends the other day. She laughed; she doesn’t think of me as English in particular, she said; I’m just me. But she has noticed over the years how I’ve got much more used to a few very German traits – actually arguing in public, talking openly about money, drinking until the early hours without vomiting. There are things I still can’t do – public nudity, refusing to apologise – but not many. And while I used to get a lot of subcultural kudos for coming from London, that allure has faded as I’ve been away for longer and there are now so many others here.

I’m aware that I’m in a very privileged position. I’m probably most Germans’ favourite kind of foreigner – I’m English, I’m white, I speak the language and pay my taxes here, I’ve made them a miniature German to help pay their pensions but I’m not overtaxing the welfare system by popping out any more offspring. I squirm when teachers praise me for bringing up my daughter bilingual but tell mothers from other countries to speak German at home. And I know it’s wrong of me to half-expect other English-speakers here to learn the language while insisting that language is a purely private matter, no matter what Erdogan or Merkel say.

But to end this essay, one thing I don’t feel conflicted about is my nationality; I’ve defined myself in Senol’s sense. Yes, I’m British. But I’m an individual with an atypical biography – and that nationality is only one of the many factors that make up my cultural identity. I hope that’s revealed in my stories.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Philip Oltermann on German Alienism

Granta 114 is dedicated to "aliens" in unfamiliar cultures. Among many other great pieces, the German-born journalist Philip Oltermann writes about what it was like to move to London at the age of 16. Many amusing observations about British life from a German perspective. And you can listen to Oltermann in a podcast, reading and interviewed with some rather irritating tinkly music in the background now and then. He also talks about his upcoming non-fiction book on Anglo-German encounters - Kevin Keegan and Berti Vogts and "Dinner for One", for example. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Read an Excerpt from The Shadow-Boxing Woman

You can get a taste of my translation of Inka Parei's outstanding novel The Shadow-Boxing Woman on the publisher Seagull Books' website. Enjoy.