Friday, 27 September 2013

Translation Idol Reminder

Are you stuck for a way to celebrate international translation day on 30 September? Why not submit an entry to Translation Idol? Because that's the deadline.

Germany has kindly awarded us a public holiday to celebrate. We'll be at the Alte Kantine Wedding on Thursday, 3 October, 8 p.m. It costs €5 on the door or €3 for poor people, but obviously if you send us a translation you're automatically on the guest list. If you can't come you can still send a translation, because we'll have someone read it on your behalf. And if you don't send a translation you should still come, because we'll be proclaiming the republic of no man's land, where everyone gets a vote on the best translation and where we realistically demand the impossible: translation.

So join me and Germany's next top author Deniz Utlu for fun, frolics and fabulous prizes. There is also a bar.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

...And the Shortlist Sample Translations!

But the VERY VERY EXCITING thing is that English sample translations of all six German Book Prize contenders are now online at New Books in German. Please take the rest of the day off work and read them all. They are by Martin Chalmers, Iain Galbraith, me, Zaia Alexander, Kári Driscoll and Alexandra Roesch. So obviously you should start with the Clemens Meyer one.

And seeing as you happen to be a publishing type with a large budget at your disposal, you could also enquire about buying translation rights, now that you too have fallen for Im Stein.

Talks on Work

Two lots of talks: one in London organised by the Translators Association and featuring my pal Jamie Lee Searle and me talking to translators about how to get the kind of work you want to get and not the kind you don't want. That's on 18 November but you can book now.

And before that a whole day's worth in Berlin, called Paths to Publishing and featuring all kinds of other more publishing-y people talking about publishing issues. All on 6 October.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Meyer and Me

Why yes, I did go out drinking with Clemens Meyer. He plays the trumpet and likes Benedict Cumberbatch and James Joyce and single malt whisky from Islay. He is also an outstanding writer.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Several Things in One Go

A quick round-up of all sorts of things:

The Prize of the SWR Bestenliste - an annual riff on the monthly SWR Bestenliste, a list of top recent fiction compiled by critics - has gone to Ulrike Edschmid for her work in general and the novel Das Verschwinden des Philip S. in particular. I must admit the book had slipped under my radar. It's about a couple in 1960s West Berlin, and what happens when the man becomes a left-wing terrorist. In July it also won the Grimmelshausen Prize, bagging Edschmid €10,000 for a narrative work that deals with contemporary history.

This coming weekend, the Goethe Institut New York is holding a series of talks, I think, about Berlin and New York and translation and literature and the all-round wonderfulness that is the Literary Colloquium Berlin. It's called Shining Island and you should go, if at all possible, because it features some fantastic people.

The new issue of New Books in German is out, all purple and regally full of recommended books. Very soon, they'll also have English sample translations from all six novels shortlisted for the German Book Prize. What they already have is a sweet little feature by Romy Fursland, I believe, about new publisher (and friends of mine) Readux Books. Where you can now place advance orders, by the way, and probably ought to.

Translators Canan Marasligil and Nicki Harman are revving up for their London discussion on International Translation Day by stating their positions on whether or not translators should write forewords and footnotes, on the Free Word Centre website.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Two More Shortlists: Swiss Books and Debut Novels

I'm still confused about this Swiss book prize business. There still seems to be one Swiss Book Prize run by the Swiss booksellers for which only German-language books are eligible, and one Swiss Literature Prize run by the government, for which books in the other Swiss languages can be nominated as well. 

Anyway, here are the nominations for the Swiss Book Prize:

Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt
Roman Graf: Niedergang
Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren
Jens Steiner: Carambole
Henriette Vásárhelyi: immeer

The winner is announced on 27 October.

Then there's the "aspekte"-Literaturpreis, which goes to a debut novel written in German, regardless of provenance. Here's their shortlist:

Roman Ehrlich: Das kalte Jahr
Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren
Eberhard Rathgeb: Kein Paar wie wir
Hannes Stein: Der Komet
Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch
Monika Zeiner: Die Ordnung der Sterne über Como

The winner is announced on the TV show that runs the award on 4 October. 

My favourites are Lüscher and de Velasco, just so you know.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Germany's Literary Pope Remembered

Marcel Reich-Ranicki died yesterday at the age of 93. He was a very unusual character, a literary critic revered by (almost) the entire nation. He was born in Poland in 1920 but spent his youth in Germany, developing a passion for Thomas Mann and Goethe before being deported to Warsaw in 1938; he survived the Nazis in the ghetto but his parents and brother were murdered in concentration camps. He returned to the country in 1958 after a stint as a Polish diplomat in London. In West Germany, he joined the Gruppe 47 but apparently felt like an outsider. He became a very successful newspaper critic, heading the literary section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for fifteen years and writing a column for the newspaper's Sunday edition until May of this year.

What made him a household name, however, was television. He was the main talking head on an extraordinary show, das literarische Quartett, from 1988 to 2001. Seventy-five minutes of literary critics arguing on sofas, over seventy-seven episodes. Imagine. He had already been on the jury for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize from its initiation in 1977. The competition has been broadcast live since 1989, showing sweating writers and ruthless critics over three days. Imagine.

Reich-Ranicki was known for making literary criticism accessible and entertaining; readable reactions to literature that were allowed to play for laughs, including by ripping writers' work to verbal shreds, in print and in person. That made him popular and unpopular; the political and artistic feud that developed between him and the writer Martin Walser came to a head in the 2002 roman à clef Death of Critic. It was Walser who compared powerful critics to popes, I believe, years before his controversial novel. What bothered me personally, and perhaps this fits with that comparison, was MRR's apparent insistence that his own taste was definitive; tantamount to a literary canon. In fact he went as far as to issue his very own canon, aimed at "the reader". It was first announced in der Spiegel in 2001 with the now rather jaded headline "Was man lesen muss" - the equivalent to those "50 books everyone needs to read" lists, only in a lot more detail.

But readers loved him, making his autobiography a million-seller. His column often consisted of questions sent in by devoted fans, asking his opinion on particular writers. The phrasing of many of these questions suggests that people simply wanted someone to tell them, definitively, whether a writer is good or bad. And if MRR said so, it must be true. The obituaries are calling his death the end of an era, and that may well be the case. He was one of the people we have to thank for making German literary criticism fun to read. Yet it feels like no coincidence that the speech opening this year's Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, held by Michael Köhlmeier, began with a reminder of how cruel Reich-Ranicki and critics in general could and can be, when he (and they) trashed the writer Jörg Fauser thirty years previously. This year's judges, the critics in their summer suits, took the hint and held back. I think it's not only Köhlmeier; there's also a more widespread feeling that there's no need to be cruel to write good criticism. Perhaps because it's so easy now for anyone to sling mud publicly. That's something I try to bear in mind for my amateur criticism here - I want to write entertainingly but not at anyone else's expense.

My two favourite obituaries are a loving one in the FAZ by Frank Schirrmacher and a respectful but critical one in the taz by Ina Hartwig. Read both.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Two Winning Videos

The European Council of Literary Translators' Associations (CEATL) is not the world's sexiest organisation, but they have now chosen two very sexy videos as winners of their "Spot the Translator" contest. If you haven't been sent at least one of the links over the past month or so, you obviously aren't a translator. The aim of the game is to raise awareness for literary translators' work.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Franzen on Kraus and Franzen

I have written before about Jonathan Franzen as an advocate for German-language literature, or at least I feel like I have. Yesterday's Guardian featured a three-page article on Karl Kraus authored by the American writer. Or at least, a three-page article involving the early-20th-century Austrian "Great Hater" Karl Kraus and expanding on some of Franzen's ideas about modern life.

My reaction is confusion. Not so much to the article itself, in which Franzen takes some of Kraus's ideas - notably a rather outmoded one about Romance and Germanic cultures - and applies them seemingly randomly to some frequently bemoaned phenomena like the great Apple/Windows divide. There is some rejection of new media worthy of Günter Grass and some easy points-scoring against Jeff Bezos. He then goes on to tell us about how he came to Karl Kraus and how he is also an angry man afraid of the apocalypse, which is fine.

My confusion comes in relation to the whole fact of the article, or the whole Kraus Project itself. It's not quite clear exactly what the article is, but I'd hazard a guess it's an extract from Franzen's forthcoming book of/about Karl Kraus plus a little bit of extra material to whet our appetites. I have to say, it's worked on me. It looks like The Kraus Project is less of a simple translation and more of a hybrid thing including the original German, Franzen's English, Franzen's wide-ranging annotations and some more notes from the American Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and the Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, who I believe helped with the translation too. Hence the previously confusing circumstance that Franzen gets his full name on the cover in very large letters, while Karl Kraus has to go without a first name. It also explains the strange fact that Franzen's German publishers have commissioned a translation of his annotations, which they will add to the original out-of-copyright texts and publish in German.

I am still confused, though, about why Jonathan Franzen has put together this book. I recently saw the American writer Ben Marcus reading in Berlin (he's a fellow at the American Academy) and learned that he'd had a bit of a spat with Franzen a few years ago. I don't follow American literary matters so it was new to me, and I enjoyed Marcus's 2005 Harper's article enormously when I read it today. So I now feel a little more up to not-quite date on the whole "Jonathan Franzen versus difficult writing" front, albeit more from someone else's perspective than from Franzen's own. Still, Marcus uses plenty of quotes to detail Franzen's argument against difficulty in literary fiction, and makes some good points in rejecting it for himself.

It seems to me that Franzen has repeatedly argued against using unusual and experimental techniques and opaque language, because they make novels more difficult to read, which for him lessens the reader's enjoyment and lowers the novel's entertainment value. An argument Marcus effectively scotches, but anyway. Now, Jonathan Franzen is bringing one of the most notoriously difficult German-language writers to Anglophone readers. And that is what's confusing me.

Franzen praises all sorts of things about him, "his moral fervour, his satirical rage, his hatred of the media, his preoccupation with apocalypse, and his boldness as a sentence-writer." Those are my italics, because Kraus was more than bold as a sentence-writer; many of his sentences are nigh-on incomprehensible. I recently translated a few very short passages from Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, no doubt poorly, for an academic event. It was incredibly difficult because I found it very hard to understand what Kraus was saying. He was not writing anything we might call "accessible" - even by the standards of his time. So why, to quote Franzen out of context, is he now punishing his readers with Kraus's "needless difficulty"? Why revive interest in a writer whose style, by Franzen's own admission, deliberately "kept the uninitiated out"? As the Guardian article points out, "the Great Hater" didn't write novels, "the popular genre that Kraus had disdained but I did not." Yet surely the distinction between novel-writing and other kinds of writing is arbitrary here?

Judging by the passages quoted in the Guardian article, Franzen has done a decent job at translating (there are points I might quibble, but that would be silly). To some extent, he has simplified Kraus. For instance, the phrase "in Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten" is unpacked and explained very slightly in the English version: "in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads." That's fine, that's a thing we have to do when languages don't overlap entirely. There's that much-repeated anecdote about German philosophy students reading Kant in English translation so as to understand it better. Yet still, Kraus is almost as hard to understand in English as he is in German.

I can only assume that the internationally anticipated footnotes are aimed at helping readers to understand Karl Kraus. The publisher FSG tells us Franzen is capable of "untangling Kraus’s often dense arguments to reveal their relevance to contemporary America." I assume there is some kind of levelling impulse behind the project, a wish to educate readers. Which is why I'll probably read the book; I'd like to understand Karl Kraus. All resentment and envy aside, I am glad Jonathan Franzen has championed a notoriously impenetrable dead Austrian writer. I can't imagine anyone else would have got three pages in the Guardian on the same subject. However, my concern after reading the piece is that Franzen's attempts to explain Kraus are more about his own view of the world than anything else.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Shortlist Shortlist Shortlist Joy

Hooray! Here's the shortlist for this year's German Book Prize.

Mirko Bonné: Nie mehr Nacht

Reinhard Jirgl: Nichts von euch auf Erden

Clemens Meyer: Im Stein (hooray hooray hooray)

Terézia Mora: Das Ungeheuer

Marion Poschmann: Die Sonnenposition

Monika Zeiner: Die Ordnung der Sterne über Como

Monday, 9 September 2013

German Book Prize 2013: My Take on the Longlist

The six-title shortlist for the German Book Prize is announced on Wednesday, and I have finally finished my traditional trawl through the longlist extracts. There are a number of excellent books on the list and a couple that simply puzzled me. I have a clear favourite but it wasn't hard to select five others for my personal shortlist, which you'll find at the bottom of the piece. I've also turbo-translated sample sentences from each extract and added a couple of pointers to what they have in common. For links to the books, please see my previous piece.

So here you are:

Mirko Bonné: Nie mehr Nacht

An artist and his nephew travel to France, dealing in parallel with the boy’s mother’s suicide and all the young men who died when the Allies landed in 1944. I admire Bonné’s prose a great deal and I think the novel is probably well-structured too. Thoughtful, reflective, well-written. This is one of my favourites; reviews have been good.

Sample sentence: “Ira called the house her fossilization.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, artist character, (mental) health issues, three-word title, writer also translates, writer also a poet, German-speakers abroad, family matters

Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt

A novel about the Jewish painter Chaim Soutine in occupied France, 1943. He is sick and remembering his life in a morphine-induced delirium. The subject feels a little specialised, but I suppose it explores art and exile and sickness via a single life. The extract felt to me rather bitty and pretentious, laying it on a little too thick for my taste. Too much mustard, if you get what I mean. Reviews have been very enthusiastic though.

Sample sentence: “A sharp click like from a gun, a dry snapping into the waiting lock.”

Non-USPs: (Mental) health issues, three-word title, writer also translates, writer also a poet, artist character, framing device

Thomas Glavinic: Das größere Wunder

I’m not a fan of Glavinic’s writing. I find it kind of middlebrow, exploring simple ideas in too long a format, and this seems to fall into the same category. A man climbs Mount Everest and remembers his life – perhaps I’m missing something but I found the extract slightly kitsch and not all that promising, personally. Reviews have been mixed; critics have been confirming the kitsch and clichés but liking it nevertheless.

Sample sentence: “For Jonas, time had its own smell, the way it had its own mood and a few characteristic images.”

Non-USPs: Three-word title, German-speakers abroad, love story, framing device, trilogy, family matters

Norbert Gstrein: Eine Ahnung vom Anfang

A teacher thinks he recognises an extremist with a bomb in the newspaper as his former favourite pupil. Cue confusing memories. Gstrein writes in a very ambitious style, and I appreciate that. There’s little explaining; the story seems to tell itself. The extract made me curious and reviews have been good.

Sample sentence: “The route disappears into the hill immediately after that, to protect the village from traffic noise, and one can watch for ever as the tunnel swallows up car after car like a giant maw.”

Non-USPs: Framing device, teacher character

Reinhard Jirgl: Nichts von euch auf Erden

In the 23rd century, humankind has settled Mars and the Earth has regressed, but then the Mars people come back to kick a bit of shape into the Earth people. Also some fun ideas about sex in the future, which I think I heard him read in Leipzig in the spring. A very odd book that, as with all of Jirgl’s writing, challenges the reader (although the extract doesn’t feature his special orthography). Big big stuff, I suspect too big for me, and too much for a number of reviewers as well. But you have to respect the guy for it.

Sample sentence: “These artificial membranes – called the imagospheres – consist of thin, extremely resistant, electrically conductive woven fibreglass.”

Non-USPs: Genre as high lit, German-speakers abroad

Daniel Kehlmann: F

I’m sorry, but I have an irrational dislike of Daniel Kehlmann; he’s just one of those writers. Three brothers, truth and lies, family, forgery, fiction and filosophy. All the Fs, you see. I can’t tell much from the extract other than it’s trying to build up tension, and reviews have been mixed. Some critics love it, others are harder on him for not going deeply enough into the issues he tries to raise. I won’t be reading it but it’ll no doubt be translated. Readers who like this book will also like… Jonathan Franzen.

Sample sentence: “Years later – they were all grown up and each entangled in his own misfortune – none of Arthur Friedland’s sons remembered whose idea it had been to visit the hypnotist that afternoon.”

Non-USPs: Family matters, one-word title

Judith Kuckart: Wünsche

A woman finds someone else’s stuff and escapes the German provinces to London with a stolen identity, while someone else opens up a department store called “Wishes”. I rather liked the extract, its jerky rhythm and special charm. There are a lot of contradictions in a small space, and critics have said it’s a clever, melancholy novel with the kind of flaws you can overlook, about how wishes don’t make anyone happy.

Sample sentence: “Or perhaps it’s the fault of the way Vera sits on the teacher’s desk during lessons and crosses her legs when she asks the hordes of eighteen-year-old painters and decorators, plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters how they imagine life at thirty.”

Non-USPs: Teacher character, provinces, German-speakers abroad, family matters, one-word title

Olaf Kühl: Der wahre Sohn

A sort of detective ends up in the Ukraine and gets drawn into a strange family, whose son is in a mental hospital and obsessed with his missing nanny and violent Ukrainian history. Gorgeous long and short sentences in the extract, very sharp prose. No reviews as the book’s not out for a couple of days, but I know I’m quite intrigued. Promisingly non-clichéd, especially as the writer really knows his stuff as a translator of some great Polish writers.

Sample sentence: “Reaching for the packed bag, not enough sleep but awake anyway and a little bit like hungover, even though not much was drunk the night before, slamming the front door and going down the stairs, through that smell of floor polish and indefinable stew, throwing the bag on the back seat of the car, one last look up at the windows on the third floor (…).”

Non-USPs: Genre as high lit, writer also a translator, German-speakers abroad, family matters, (mental) health issues, three-word title, place as character

Dagmar Leupold: Unter der Hand

Good grief. A rich Italian man pays a German lady writer to write, providing she brings people joy. So she tells her life story in a fairytale manner, apparently, and a neighbour finds the manuscript alongside her dead body. I disliked the style and found the premise too contrived. Also, I don’t think literature needs to make anyone happy in such a simplistic manner (although perhaps that’s the moral of the story, but I still don’t want to read a book to find that out). There haven’t been many reviews.

Sample sentence: “Minna is lying on her bed with a bedspread over it, wearing a white man’s shirt and tight black trousers.”

Non-USPs: Framing device, writer also a translator, three-word title, love story

Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren

A Swiss businessman witnesses London stockbrokers celebrating in Tunisia, and then comes the crash and brings them down with it, far from home. And tells the story inside a mental institution, I believe. I liked the extract a lot – it hints at complexity, intelligence and wit, in a strangely old-fashioned diction. And I like the idea of trying to tackle political and social issues in fiction. Reviews have been excellent; it’s another of my favourites.

Sample sentence: “Preising was still in demand as the face of the company, though, because Prodanovic knew if there was one thing Preising could do, it was giving an impression of consistency, the unshakable spirit of a family company in the fourth generation.”

Non-USPs: Debut novel, German-speakers abroad, three-word title, social/political issues, (mental) health issues, framing device, place as character

Clemens Meyer: Im Stein

This is the best novel on the list and ought to win. Reviews have been awe-struck.

Sample sentence: “And I stand by the window and push the slats of the blind apart with my fingers and look at the houses on the other side of the road, the sun behind them turning red now and the night coming up.”

Non-USPs: Social/political issues, dead character (briefly), genre as high-lit (sometimes), place as character

Joachim Meyerhoff: Wann wird es endlich wieder so, wie es nie war

The actor Joachim Meyerhoff is writing his life story with a twinkle in his eye, and this is the second part. He grew up inside a mental institution, which his father ran. The writing is fun, light and entertaining but raises some serious issues. It won’t win but it’s well worth reading. Reviews have said pretty much the same thing.

Sample sentence: “His feet and calves were on the grass, the rest of his body in the flowerbed.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, (mental) health issues, trilogy, family matters, provinces, autobiography

Terézia Mora: Das Ungeheuer

Darius Kopp’s Hungarian wife has died and he’s trying to dispose of her ashes illegally on a journey around Europe. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the pages, he reads her diary. I’ve heard Mora read from the novel twice now and have been very impressed. Great tone, marvellous structure, complex language, very sad. Only just out but great reviews. Another of my favourites.

Sample sentence: “What are you laughing at, hyenas, who are you anyway, what are you doing here, Juri, for God’s sake, you swine!”

Non-USPs: Dead character, place as character, German-speakers abroad, trilogy, love story, writer also a translator

Marion Poschmann: Die Sonnenposition

I’m reading this novel at the moment, and enjoying every sentence. A psychiatrist in a mental institution loses a friend and then loses grip on his own sanity. I suspect it’s much more complex than that, though. I love Poschmann’s language: so precise, and capturing so much in few words, sometimes previously non-existent ones. There are no clumsy explanations in here – everything’s subtly shared through the mood and the language. Early reviews are equally enthusiastic.

Sample sentence: “From the middle of the sun hangs the cable for the chandelier, an old East German model.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, writer also a poet, (mental) health issues, family matters, provinces

Thomas Stangl: Regeln des Tanzes

Three characters walking Vienna, several years apart. A retired academic finds two rolls of film, pictures of two sisters fifteen years previously. The women were heavily involved in demonstrations against Austria’s neo-fascists and hedonism, respectively. I enjoyed the extract’s dense prose and characterisation, its unorthodox style, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to read 280 pages of it. Not many reviews yet.

Sample sentence: “For the first time since her father’s death she has the feeling that something’s really at an end, and this time not only (do you think that, ‘not only’?) for her and the whole small area of her own life, but for the whole country and perhaps, regardless of how small and insignificant the country is, as a consequence for the whole continent and all the countries that call themselves democracies.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, social/political issues, place as character, family matters

Jens Steiner: Carambole

Social panorama of Swiss village life told from twelve different perspectives. The extract annoyed me (perhaps a poor choice?). I felt there were too many clumsy markers telling us about the character, a middle-aged mother with a less than fulfilling life. It’s hard to tell much about the novel as a whole as it’s only just come out and hasn’t been reviewed yet. But what I read didn’t seem promising.

Sample sentence: “I turned away and picked up an old Brigitte magazine from the telephone table.”

Non-USPs: Place as character, family matters, social/political issues, one-word title

Uwe Timm: Vogelweide

A man has failed at family and business life and is now looking after birds alone on an island. Only then his ex-affair comes to visit and he remembers what happened back in Berlin. With lots of references to older literature (including the title). I really like Timm’s prose, really. Beautiful sentences that must take either hours to get right or come out perfectly formed in the first place. Unfortunately, everyone who’s read the novel is disappointed, critics included.

Sample sentence: “Here, where he was standing now, had been only water and mud flats forty years ago.”

Non-USPs: Framing device, teacher character, love story, place as character

Nellja Veremej: Berlin liegt im Osten

A woman moves from the Caucasus to Berlin and works as a carer, weaving her clients’ stories with her own. I heard Veremej read from the autobiographically-shaped novel earlier this year and found it a tiny bit too flowery for my taste, and the extract confirmed that for me. But the critics love it: Döblin, Tolstoy, exile, expectations, disillusionment, they say. So maybe I’m wrong.

Sample sentence: “The contours and colours melted away until the memory of the little town consisted only of a few grey snapshots: the long, low house built of rough stones.”

Non-USPs: Place as character, social/political issues, (mental) health issues

Urs Widmer: Reise an den Rand des Universums

Every Swiss person’s favourite writer has started writing his autobiography, after writing his father’s and his mother’s stories and pretty much using his own life as material for ever anyway. So it may be a little tongue-in-cheek, as is his wont. The extract is about his childhood memories of the war, which he could literally see across the Swiss border. Charming, witty and skilfully told. Reviews have been good.

Sample sentence: “(The war) wasn’t visible in Basel, hardly, or at times it was, as even for a child – especially for a child – there were signs of it everywhere.”

Non-USPs: Autobiography

Monika Zeiner: Die Ordnung der Sterne über Como

A musician meets an ex-lover in Italy and they remember their affair and her partner’s death. I wasn’t convinced by the extract; there were a lot of style issues I was unhappy with and nothing yelled “new and interesting” at me. Reviews are few and far between and similarly unmoved.

Sample sentence: “Once again, she stood in her underwear in front of the darkness of her wardrobe, and her eyes alighted on the blue princess dress that Alfredo had bought her in a boutique on Via Chiaia many years ago, and its torn hem.”

Non-USPs: Dead character, German-speakers abroad, place as character, framing device, love story, debut


The Love German Books Shortlist:

Mirko Bonné
Olaf Kühl
Jonas Lüscher
Clemens Meyer
Terézia Mora
Marion Poschmann

And you won't be biting your nails to find out who'd win if I ruled the world, obviously.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Things I Will Do for Free

There are some things I will do for free. Here they are:

1. I will translate a short story, essay or extract of my own choosing for submission to a magazine (print or online), especially if a) the magazine doesn’t cost anything and/or b) I hope to spread the word about a particular writer or book.

2. I will moderate or appear on a panel or read from my own translations in the UK (if the organizer pays my expenses) or at small events in Berlin.

3. I will edit friends’ translations in exchange for them editing mine.

4. I will read friends’ original manuscripts and comment on them.

5. I will give advice and recommendations to the best of my ability.

6. I will give interviews to the best of my ability.

7. I will write a blog, or two, and occasional pieces for other people’s blogs.

8. I will run a monthly translation lab where translators can help each other.

9. I will do short translations for charitable projects.

10. I will co-edit a no-budget magazine of current German writing in translation and organize an annual translation talent contest.

That is the end of the things I will do for free in my professional life. I am lucky to be older than the internship generation, which is good because I have never been in a financial position to work for free. I love my job but I have to be able to make a living out of it. Over the past few months, I’ve heard about a reputable German publisher commissioning sample translations in return for books, I’ve seen companies operating on a shoestring by employing more unpaid than paid staff, I’ve been asked to curate a special edition of a magazine for no pay, which did not have a budget for any translations I did or commissioned, and I’ve been asked to recommend translators who will work for no pay in order to gain experience.

There is the argument that people without a huge amount of start-up capital should be able to start a business too, not just rich kids. But if your business model is based on exploiting people working for free (rather than just exploiting them in the usual Marxist sense, while paying them) then that business model is not sound. And I’m not the first to say that the rise of the unpaid internship increases inequality, by making it harder for those who can’t afford to work for free to get into certain industries.

So my personal rule of thumb about working for free is this: if someone is going to make money out of the thing they want me to give them for free (e.g. my translation) I won’t work for free.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Indie Hotlist 2013 Announced

The German-language independent presses have released this year's list of top ten titles, one of which will win the publishers a prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. Unlike other prize shortlists, this one is quite eclectic – fiction and non-fiction, translations and German originals have all made the list. Here they are:

*Luiz Ruffato: Es waren viele Pferde (trans. Michael Kegler); Assoziation A – a Brazilian novel zapping around Sao Paolo

Patrick Deville: Äquatoria (trans. Sabine Müller & Holger Fock); Bilger Verlag – a French novel about Africa and colonialism and discoverers now and then

Abbas Khider: Brief in die Auberginenrepublik; Edition Nautilus – a German novel about a letter conveyed around the Arab world by underground couriers

Saskia Henning von Lange: Alles, was draußen ist; Jung und Jung Verlag – a German novella about an anatomical museum

Amy Hempel: Die Ernte (trans. Jakob Jung); Luxbooks – an American short story collection about fear and death

*Stevan Paul: Schlaraffenland; Mairisch Verlag – a German short story collection about people and food, with matching recipes

Philip Hoare: Leviathan oder der Wal (trans. Hans-Ulrich Möhring); mareverlag – an English book exploring how we think about whales

*Ryu Murakami: Das Casting (trans. Mokoto Yajin & Leopold Federmair); Septime Verlag – a Japanese novel about a widower auditioning women for a wife

Julia Deck: Viviane Élisabeth Fauville (trans. Anne Weber); Verlag Klaus Wagenbach – a French novel about a woman with a newborn baby and a murder to cover up

Wsewolod Petrow: Die Manon Lescault von Turdej (trans. Daniel Jurjew); Weidle Verlag – a Russian short story about a Soviet intellectual reading Goethe on a train full of military medical personnel

For me, the three original German titles are obviously the most interesting. But I think the list as a whole tells us a lot about what independent publishers in the German-speaking world are good at. They each submit one book, and then three were chosen by internet vote (marked with an asterisk above) and seven by a panel of judges. The same judges then choose their favourite and the prize is awarded at a big party on 11 October. The winning publisher gets €5000.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Ernst Haffner: Blutsbrüder

Ernst Haffner's Blutsbrüder is a rediscovered novel first published in 1932, and has just come out to a flurry of excitement. It centres around a gang of young men on the margins of society, the Blood Brothers. They sleep in cheap dives or sheds or rent beds by the night and spend winter days in Berlin’s heated waiting rooms and bars around Alexanderplatz, mixing with pimps, prostitutes, thieves, buskers and beggars. The boys – petty criminals, runaways and kids down on their luck – do odd jobs for work, turn tricks or try their hands at occasional blackmail. 

We follow them through ordinary days and great adventures, an escape from a correction home and an excruciating trip on the underside of a train, nights of drinking and debauchery, an arrest and a fight, virginity lost and gonorrhoea gained, days of boredom and poverty. Haffner sketches out some great characters, including the charismatic leader Johnny (what else could a 1930s gang-leader be called?) and the more sensitive correction-home boys Ludwig and Willi. These two eventually break away from the gang and try to go back to the straight and narrow once they find out how the Blood Brothers' new-found wealth has been gained.

That's all I'll give away because the novel is very much plot-led. But what it also does is give us an authentic-feeling picture of life on the underbelly of Berlin society just before Hitler came to power. Little is known about him, but Haffner was a social worker and journalist and was presumably in contact with boys like his heroes. Although he makes no direct reference to politics, his novel was banned and burned by the Nazis. I assume it was the grimy portrayal of "degenerates" as human beings that rankled with them. 

Blutsbrüder will ring a few bells with readers. Döblin's more ambitious Berlin Alexanderplatz is set in the same streets and dive bars, and there's an excursion to Isherwood's gay haunts, portrayed here as decadent (ever the social worker, Haffner never quite ditches morality). The novel also has something in common with Fallada's Alone in Berlin, as the publishers have been quick to point out, in that it too has an almost documentary feel to it – but I found it a more exciting read. Lots of local detail, including poor Jewish life in the Scheunenviertel, lots of open questions – what on earth happened to these boys under the Nazis: did they join the SA, get send to concentration camps or merely end up as cannon fodder?

It's not great literature but the novel appears to capture a moment in time and draws the reader in to its stories and characters. The new edition is beautifully illustrated with photos of 1920s and 30s Berlin. Recommended.