Monday, 29 July 2013

Thirlwell's Multiples

I spent last week sharing the joy of literary translation at the BCLT Literary Translation Summer School in Norwich. I worked with the German writer Daniela Dröscher and a group of talented aspiring/emerging/butterfly-stage translators, who produced some excellent pieces of writing in English. Dröscher's work is extremely difficult to translate - her tone can be subtle or trowelled on and she uses historical research that the translator has to replicate, only in another language. So there was plenty to be done. The texts will be online soon and there will also be video evidence.

Aside from the translation workshops themselves, the BCLT lays on various plenary sessions during the week. This year the keynote lecture was a keynote Q&A involving Adam Thirlwell, Tash Aw and Daniel Hahn. Thirlwell and Aw were there to talk about the Multiples project. Originally published as issue 42 of McSweeney's magazine, put together by Thirlwell, it's now out in the UK as a thick hardback.

To get this out of the way: I admire Adam Thirlwell. Adam Thirlwell is a clever writer with a burning interest in translation. The word "fanboy" was used to describe his admiration for translators, although not in his presence. What Thirlwell did, he told us, was an experiment to do with literary style. I'm currently reading his book Miss Herbert, which looks at dead writers' international relations and how translation plays a role and perhaps what translation is and what it can be and what it ought to be. Maybe whether it's possible, although that's not something that interests me personally. It seems to be a book about writing and translation and style. Style, however, is a slippery word, almost a non-word. I'm not yet quite sure what it means, but I'm still thinking about it.

I don't know whether Adam Thirlwell is absolutely certain what style is either. I mean that in a good way. As I understand it, Multiples was conceived as a project to put literary style to the test. Encouraged by the McSweeney's people, Thirlwell found twelve stories and sixty novelists from various languages and countries. Each story was relayed through translation into and out of and back into English several times by those writers, so that Anglophone readers don't get too upset. What I think he wanted to do was to ascertain whether the stories' respective styles would withstand translation by writers who have their own personal styles, or whether their own ways of writing would impinge upon the originals.

Tash Aw translated a story by Italian writer Giuseppe Pontiggia - but not until it had been rendered into English by Zadie Smith and then Chinese by Ma Jian. Aw was given only Ma Jian's version and no further information or detailed instructions. He was rather puzzled by it all, he told us, because it was set in China but had some very Italian aspects to it. And delightfully, his opening quote is not only mauled in its meaning but also attributed to a non-existent writer, thanks to the perils of transliteration. Aw felt obliged to be fairly loyal to his text and yet not deliver a "prim", dull translation; that involved adapting it to English literary convention by changing tenses, for instance. But it's clear that each writer did whatever the hell they felt like. Zadie Smith provided something that reads like Italian in English, to my ears, consciously not intervening in the slightest, whereas Ma Jian felt the story's coordinates predestined it to be re-set in China, and wrote accordingly.

There were a few cases where writers "lied" to Thirlwell about their language skills, which have provided some odd results. Google Translate, partners, children, guesswork and pure fancy were used, and all of them make for quirky reading, especially for readers who can follow more than just the English versions. To be honest, though, the appeal wanes after eight or nine series and I switched to reading only the translators' notes. These were fascinating throughout. One thing that struck me was that those writers translating into German were very precise and strait-laced, perhaps reflecting Germanic cultures' admiration for that kind of translation. Whereas many of the translations into English were significantly freer, for whatever reason. Of the German-language writers involved (Julia Franck, Daniel Kehlmann and Peter Stamm), only the last wrote a note, in which he seems almost penitent for adding a paragraph break.

All of which raises the question - which was of course raised at the summer school - of why Thirlwell didn't just use professional translators. Certainly, they would have been more efficient. In fact, though, that's been done before. The Swiss writer Urs Widmer sent a story of his own through six languages and then back to German, and published the outcome with comments by the translators and himself. To tell the truth I'm not entirely sure whether he worked with professionals or not, but they weren't writers in the traditional sense. He called his experiment "Stille Post" - just as the McSweeney's cover features a telephone to denote what we call "Chinese whispers" in British English. I haven't read the piece, which is in Widmer's 2011 collection of the same title, but I gather he didn't recognise the end result as his own writing. So the distorting effect is not the new thing here. We know that translation changes things in subtle ways, which can be amplified in series.

What's new - and what I very much admire about the project - is the involvement of published novelists. I found the book was more about writing than translation. It was about whether a writer's ego would kick in and transform the material more than the mere act of translation does anyway. The answer is probably yes, I'd say. Especially where the writers "didn't like" their texts, we learned, they tended to re-write rather than re-render. And that's where the style issue comes in. I'm not sufficiently familiar with any of the English-language writers involved (aside from Smith, perhaps, who was proverbially invisible) to judge whether their versions could be read simply as, say, John Banville writing within stricter parameters than usual. I'm not sure what markers we could use to make that judgement. I'm not sure whether cultural issues were at play or personality clashes, or to what extent style equates with ego.

As Thirlwell wrote in his introduction, a distinction emerged between four categories of translation:
(...) of the celebrated dead, of the uncelebrated dead, of the celebrated living, and of the uncelebrated living. Each one can constrain or free the novelist-translator to various degrees of stylistic chutzpah.
I personally most enjoy translating the celebrated living, or at least living writers celebrated in my own head. There is an aspect of admiration involved, but not the level of reverence that becomes frightening and constricting. I hope I - and perhaps other translators - can follow some of the examples in Multiples to free our work from some of its constraints. A series of perfect translations - which can of course only exist in theory, in a Che Guevara world in which we not only demand but also realistically achieve the impossible - would make very dull reading. A book that makes novelists try their hands at translation just might make novelists appreciate translators' work more. Very few of the texts included here would be described as "good translations" by most definitions. Yet many of them are good texts in their own way and the project as a whole makes fascinating reading. I'm still considering style and whether translators can grant ourselves a style of our own.

To round off that particular day at summer school, then, I fangirled over translator-fanboy Thirlwell. This took place under the twin constraints of extreme exhaustion and rapid alcohol consumption. Among the thoughts swirling around my head, the most prominent were probably "Oh God, I just tripped over in front of Adam Thirlwell" and "Oh God, I just smashed a glass in front of Adam Thirlwell." He was, however, perfectly civil and friendly and refrained from laughing at my clumsiness and attempts at conversation. I can't quite bring myself to destroy the mystique by reading his own translations though. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

I Am Away

I am away. I may be gone some time.

Update: I am not walking to my death in a blizzard; merely teaching and having a holiday.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

On Writers' Writers and German Writers

There are writers' writers, as you'll no doubt be aware. The kind of writers namedropped by other writers. There are certain characteristics common to the writers' writer. Primarily, she will be no threat to the writers' own standing: unsuccessful in commercial terms, or if not precisely unsuccessful then at least dead. She will not suggest that writing is something that makes writers happy, thus making the writers look like emotional failures: she will have suffered for her art; suicide, madness, disease, loneliness or addiction will play a part. She will be sufficiently obscure to make the writers who drop her name look well-read. She will often be a he.

The obvious example right now is Ian McEwan's advocacy of John Williams. But see also Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada's fascinating appreciation of Paul Celan in The White Review (trans. Susan Bernofsky) - suggesting the phenomenon might be universal - and any number of those recommended in this recent Observer list.

Of course, German-language writers are high up in the writers' writers charts among English speakers: Sebald, Kafka, Bernhard, Celan, Roth, Koeppen, Walser, Kraus, perhaps Brecht. Skilled, all of them, with a bit of a narrative to their own lives. And firmly dead.

Teju Cole was recently awarded the International Literature Award in Berlin, along with his translator Christine Richter-Nilsson. If you've read Open City and are anything like me, you'll have guessed at one of his major influences (I enjoyed it nonetheless). But what made me think was something he said at the award ceremony, along the lines of: Whenever you read a book by a living writer, you're supporting literature.

Now, I found his statement a little too pithy, but we all exaggerate on adrenaline. Yet, what I would like to happen is this: for British and American writers to start reading and championing living writers in translation. This is happening to some extent with Krasznahorkai right now – but you could take it further, writers. And Other Stories has the clever ploy of asking English-language writers for introductions to their books, so that each of their translated writers has an advocate on home territory. But really, think of the benefits! The few who get translated are outstanding writers but they present no threat because they're competing on different terms; they're magnificently obscure and will give you an early-adopter bonus; and although they may not yet be quite open about their tortured souls, a good few of them are fucked up in exotic ways. Plus you get writer karma points (is that a thing?) for supporting a real live underdog rather than a dead and buried one, who won't be grateful and won't big up your books in their own country.

I chickened out a little bit with Teju Cole, and asked his German editor to pass on one of my translations to him: Inka Parei's What Darkness Was - a single life and fifty-odd years of German history summed up in a single day. His German editor might not have given it to him, or he might have left it on a train or put it on that big pile of other books or started it and abandoned it. Or he might be dropping Inka Parei's name in conversation this very minute.

If you're an English-language writer and would like to namedrop some living German writers, I'd be happy to recommend someone you might like whose work is available in translation. I also have spare copies of all the books I've translated (see the profile section for details). Just let me know.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Call for Submissions - no man's land #8

Contemporary German-language fiction and poetry in English translation.
Deadline: September 15, 2013.

no man’s land, the online journal for contemporary German literature in translation at, is seeking submissions for its 2013 issue.

For prose, send up to 3 texts (stories or self-contained novel excerpts, max. 4,000 words each) by one or different contemporary* writers. For poetry, send work by up to 3 poets, each to a maximum of 5 poems. Electronic submissions only. No simultaneous submissions, please, and – with some possible exceptions** – no previously-published translations. The deadline is September 15, 2013, and we will inform contributors by mid-October 2013; the issue will go online by mid-December. 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 scanned letter, or forward us an e-mail).

Please send submissions electronically to Isabel Cole at

To save time and avoid misplacing your work, we ask that you observe the following guidelines for electronic submissions:

1)     Submit all texts (poems or prose) by one author in the same file (i.e. not a separate file for each poem).
2)     Name the file with your translation as follows: pr for prose, ly for poetry_your last name_the author’s last name_e. So Anthea Bell’s translation of prose by E. T. A. Hoffmann would be: pr_bell_hoffmann_e.doc. Name the file with the original the same way, but ending with _dt (pr_bell_hoffmann_dt.doc). Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke poems would be ly_mitchell_rilke_e.doc, and the original would be ly_mitchell_rilke_dt.doc.

Apologies if this sounds complicated, but it really is a great help!

For more information, see our “Translators’ Tips” on the no man’s land website, 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

*Defined more or less as writers currently active, or active in the later 20th/early 21st century. When in doubt, query!

** We are willing to make exceptions for translations that have appeared previously in very limited circulation and that we feel deserve a new audience. Again, please feel free to query.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Hotlist Ballot List

The German independent book prize by the silly name of Hotlist has launched its longlist, so to speak. They've selected 30 titles out of all those submitted by indie publishers, and you can now vote on your favourite. Then the top three go through to the shortlist (which they call the hotlist) along with seven books chosen by the international jury (Austria, Switzerland, Germany!). And then at the Frankfurt book fair they hold a big party and announce the winner, which is then called something like "the hotlist winner" or some such nonsense, and the publishers get a big fat cheque.

Anyway, despite their idiosyncratic use of the English language, they also now have an English-language website! Hooray! And they're a fabulous institution.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

That Very Exciting Thing: Readux!

The big day has come: the yummy new Readux website is live! Feast your eyes on the first four teeny books to go on sale in October. There's an original essay by Gideon Lewis-Krauss, whom I once accidentally called a nerd to his face. There's Swedish fiction from Malte Persson (trans. Saskia Vogel). And there are two classic 1929 pieces on Berlin by Franz Hessel (trans. Amanda DeMarco). Yes, he was indeed Stéphane's father but he was also a fabulous writer and flaneur.

Most exciting for me, as you might imagine, is my translation of Francis Nenik's The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping. It has been so very hard not to splurge this all over the internet, but now I can. Hooray! I absolutely adore this little book and I hope you will too. It's an award-winning piece of writing that will melt the hearts of all those who care about poets and also confuse you, I very much hope. I went out drinking with Francis Nenik in March, by the way.

Please join me in being very excited about this new venture to publish great writing in small packages, focusing on translation. 

(Full disclosure: Amanda DeMarco of Readux Books is sitting opposite me right now. But you should still go to the website and you should still buy all four books in October and also all the later books she publishes. I am biased but I do have good taste.)

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Teresa Präauer: Für den Herrscher aus Übersee

Teresa Präauer is an Austrian writer, currently staying in Berlin. Her name is quite hard to pronounce: Prray-hour is the closest I can get. She recently read at the LCB and surprised me with a very spirited performance, which was great fun to watch. So I bought her book, mispronouncing her name at the bookshop.

Her debut novel is called Für den Herrscher aus Übersee, and won the aspekte Prize for debut novels last year (which is a very good award and has gone to a lot of great writers). It's a very short book but not a quick read, because it wants you to linger. It wants you to bid the moment stay, it wants you to savour the reading: verweile doch, du bist so schön.

It's not the slightest bit Faustian though, really. But it does contain all sorts of snippets of stories. I spotted Nils Holgersson and The Wild Swans and also perhaps a tiny bit of Tilman Rammstedt's King of China (with postcards and a grandfather) and maybe The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Robinson Crusoe and a number of others. Or perhaps not as explicit as that, perhaps she just uses story ideas we're already familiar with and puts them into an unexpected context. But not in a creepy way, more like a collage made of scraps cut out of books, photos, magazines. In fact there's a gorgeous collage in the novel, with a wedding dress made of shredded postage stamps.

What is it about? It's about two siblings (one is definitely a boy, the other we don't know) staying with their grandparents, and about their grumpy ex-pilot grandfather's unlikely romance with a Japanese pilot woman during the war, and about a woman flying cross-country in some kind of flying device with a group of birds in the present-day, whenever that may be. That's all I want to tell you about the plot. It's not the important thing about the book, except that it adds to its all-round curiousness by being rather curious.

What Präauer does is work with language almost visually (she's an artist too). To give an example, her child protagonists are learning to read letter by letter, and she gives them this to help them along:
A V is easy to write and builds a road to W. Turned on its head, a V is almost an A and A Activates it All. And then there's I, that's easy as pie, but it doesn't spell eyes. A peacock's eyes sit on its feathers, blue, green and brown, and look round like lots of Os. O, my brother and I say with wide-open mouths.
Isn't that delightful? I cheated a bit with the translation; it's slightly simpler than that but it refused to work as well in English, but then again the English has some sneaky half-rhymes added in.

There are lots of pictures described in the novel, as befits a story with pre-school heroes, but her childish narrator isn't the slightest bit childish. Except that he or she does childish things, but then so do all the other characters. Plus she does another wonderful thing to interlink her strands but I don't want to tell you that because it made me gasp in admiration when I spotted it. And then Präauer peppers her prose with birds, in gardens and coops and aviaries and eggs and up in the air, of course. And all the flying - everyone in the book does a spot of flying, apart from the poor grandmother.

I am not at all doing a good job of writing about this book. It's a slippery character but one you will want to wrestle to the ground to stop it running away. If it wore clothes they would make up an outrageous outfit: a pilot's cap and goggles, a flowery apron, wire-and-paper wings, a jam-smeared pillow case, peacock feathers in its hair and a kimono covered in maps. It would definitely turn heads in the street. It's very good indeed.

Something Exciting

Something very exciting is going to happen tomorrow. I'm not allowed to spill the beans yet though. Please watch this space.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Bachmann Prize, Katja Petrowskaja, Twitter Win Bachmann Prize

This year's Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is over and leaving a gap in my life. The big news is that the people behind it invited along the TV boss who threatened to axe it. Last night he made a surprise announcement, repeated on live TV this morning: the Bachmann Prize will live another day. Apparently, he realised it was rather important. This year's event had been accompanied by a campaign to save it, by the name of #bbleibt. And ORF's Wrabetz apparently joined in the campaign, typing his own reasons to save the competition on the typewriter set up in Klagenfurt, where the four-day event is held. He certainly knows how to cause a media sensation. Wrabetz got my hopes up by referring to international viewers via livestream - so perhaps my wildest dreams will come true and I'll get to translate the texts again, as in 2010 and 2011.

The top prize went to Katja Petrowskaja for her text "Vielleicht Esther" about how some members of a Jewish family in Kiev manage to escape the approaching Nazis in 1941 and one doesn't, trusting the German-speakers rather than the Ukrainians. And about how the narrator, "perhaps Esther"'s grandchild, might not have existed but for a pot plant that may not have existed either. So a complex piece of writing reflecting on history and memory. Without meaning to detract from its qualities, it was a fairly safe bet for the prize. In past years the jury has favoured older writers, intricate language and non-native speakers, all boxes Petrowskaja ticked and of course all perfectly legitimate things to favour. I'll stick my neck out and predict two things: that the novel, published by Suhrkamp next year, will be a success and that it will get translated into English. It's the kind of writing British readers appreciate. She was also delightfully modest and self-deprecating. Congratulations!

The other prizes went to Verena Güntner, Benjamin Maack and Heinz Helle, who I thought was great. I also loved Philip Schönthaler's very clever experimental pastiche with a hidden narrator "translating" the story from a Zeit article about violinist David Garrett and Wikipedia and no doubt other sources, "Ein Lied in allen Dingen". I got very, very excited while reading it. The audience vote went to Nadine Kegele. Another writer worth mentioning was Joachim Meyerhoff, an actor who gave a thrilling reading of a great story, fairly simply written, about a young man stealing a book.

The other winner was Twitter. You'll note that the campaign to save the prize gave itself a hashtag. It was run online and offline, but the Twitter aspect meant it gained a profile outside Klagenfurt itself. And the hashtag #tddl was trending all over the shop in Germany. A couple of the participants were tweeting from the event, plus one of last year's participants and the studio presenter himself. There were "literary twitterers" in Klagenfurt and the rest of the world watching TV or livestream and chatting, bitching, ridiculing, analysing online in real time. Over the four days a sense of community developed, culminating in near-ecstasy over the announcement that we'll be able to do it all over again next year. In Berlin, Nikola Richter hosted our #BachmannTwitterParty (evidence here) in good old-fashioned analogue Kreuzberg. We had nine visitors including a random passer-by who didn't seem to speak German, English or French but smiled politely and stayed a couple of hours. It was fun because we could make rude comments but not put them online for posterity. Also, we drank Sekt at 9.30 in the morning. I had to have a lie-down afterwards. I'm not sure I managed to stick to my resolution not to write horrible things about anybody, but I tried. Apologies to all those following my new Twitter account with no interest in Austrian literary competitions.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Martin Chalmers' Writing

Martin Chalmers is a translator for whom I have nothing but admiration. He knows a lot about German-language writing and about history and about translation, and he has worked on some wonderful books. We have very different literary tastes; or rather, Martin often doesn't share mine. Occasionally he will write me a long email explaining something I have misunderstood or misrepresented here. I enjoy reading what he has to say, especially because he manages not to come across as a know-it-all. When I meet him I feel gangly and superficial.

And now I see he writes too, and well. You can read his writing on his website - about German-language writers and books, about Berlin and history, about his own family. Please do.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Gearing up for the Bachmann Prize

I've been preparing myself mentally for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, which starts tomorrow. That means reading the short pieces by the competing writers in Volltext magazine (not online, sadly), and thinking.

Last year I was moving house and missed it all, and I did miss it. The two years before that I felt like part of the competition. I was one of a small number of people who read the texts beforehand, to translate them or to edit co-translator Stefan Tobler's translations. I knew what was coming, I had my favourites, I'd asked some of the writers questions and judged their personalities (wrongly), based on their responses. I had something to say about the competition that nobody else did. My nerdy literary friends envied me and on one occasion even came to my house in droves to watch the show with me. I wrote a live blog on the proceedings. It was exhausting. I don't want to do that again, partly because I don't feel like my insights are worth the bother without the insider perspective.

So we're going to tweet, and we're going to watch together on Saturday at Glas + Bild. Come along. By we I mean myself, Nikola Richter (Schriftstelle) and Fabian Thomas (The Daily Frown), who came up with the idea of making a special blog for the occasion, while drinking overpriced white wine at the Brecht-Haus. And then downsized the plan again to Twitter, requiring me to sign up and get sucked in. But of course I also mean all the other people who tweet about the Bachmann Prize under #tddl. Being new to the whole thing, I'm going to do it all wrong. I shall also be really annoying for anyone who has me in their feed, because I'll be posting all the fucking time about an Austrian literary competition, which is a fairly obscure thing for anyone outside the German-language literary world.

The other think I've been thinking about is the competition itself. Because of the threat to axe it, there's been a lot of discussion about whether it works, whether it's good for writers and readers, how to bring it into the 21st century, and so on. Previous winners describe their experiences in Der Standard - and they seem to have been under enormous pressure. But then they seem to have got a lot out of it in career terms. In Die Presse, Anne-Catharine Simon writes about how inhumane it all is - and especially was at the beginning under Marcel Reich-Ranicki, not a critic famed for ever being nice to anyone. All the comments raise a fundamental question about writing versus publishing, if you like. Writers write what they want to write, and I won't presume to know for whom, but then if they're lucky (or perhaps unlucky) it crosses over into the publishing world and is expected to make money, which requires calling consumers' attention to it. And the Bachmann Prize is a good way to do that. Everyone's pointing out that Ingeborg Bachmann herself was painfully shy and hated reading in public. But with so many writers now hoping to make a living from their work, they are expected to market themselves and this is one rather painful way to do so.

Drawing on this, I've been thinking about how I should behave. Nikola's pointed out that the competition organisation itself is a wee bit backward in terms of using the web. But then Angela Leinen had a great piece in Der Standard about how the web uses the Bachmann Prize, and also an article in Volltext that you can read online, about her adventures on the margins in Klagenfurt. And the key thing is that if we're going to criticise the event for exposing writers to cruel critics, albeit with the theoretical opportunity to defend themselves, then we have to be very careful indeed about criticising the writers ourselves. So it will be a challenge for a verbose person like me to comment thoughtfully and carefully in 140 characters. But I want to try it anyway. I might have to sum things up on my blog though.

In past years, I've made some great personal discoveries via the Bachmann Prize. I've translated a book first presented there, Dorothee Elmiger's Invitation to the Bold of Heart, and picked up on numerous other writers. I hope the same happens this year.