The shortlist for the British Crime Writers Association's International Dagger award was announced on Friday night. Rather excitingly, it includes a German book that I personally translated, Simon Urban's Plan D. The novel is a detective story set in a fictitious present-day East Germany, in which the Berlin Wall is still up. The International Dagger award has existed since 2006 and has never gone to a German book, partly because it is usually awarded to Fred Vargas and her translator Siân Reynolds. They are indeed very good. The author receives £1000 and the translator £500. The winners of a whole slew of awards are announced at a swanky London ceremony on 30 June. I haven't been invited so far, but maybe these things take time. Or maybe I just won't go.
I'm not expecting my book to win because it's up against some very tough competition, including Fred Vargas/Siân Reynolds and the meta-crime novel The Siege by Arturo Perez-Reverte/Frank Wynne. So I'm going to take this opportunity to tell you how the novel got on the list in the first place.
The first step was when the German publishers Schöffling Verlag commissioned me to translate a sample chapter. The people who work in Foreign Rights often use different translators for these samples - which they use to try to sell translation rights around the world - depending on who they think would be right for the job. In this case, they second-guessed my taste very well and I was very keen on the style. I was then asked to write a reader's report on the whole thing for New Books in German magazine, and that turned out equally enthusiastic. On that basis, the German Book Office in New York asked me to talk in front of camera (at the Frankfurt Book Fair) about the book for one of their rather good videos. Armed with all this ammunition, I suggested the book to an editor at Harvill Secker. She liked the idea, bought the rights, and promptly quit the job.
So I translated the book for another editor, who specializes in international crime fiction. It took about four months of intensive work, which I enjoyed immensely. Unusually for me, I didn't have a great deal of contact with the writer, as he's in Hamburg and was working long hours in an advertising agency at the time. He's since also quit and published his second crime novel, Gondwana. So we had one long phone call to clear up my questions at the end of the translation process, although I didn't have all too many. The biggest challenge and the greatest joy was probably capturing the rhythm, with Urban's sentences often running on for whole paragraphs. I left most of them as they were - if you don't like them, buy a different book. But of course there were also the difficulties of guessing what aspects of long-gone East German society British readers would understand and which needed subtle explaining. Plus the real-life characters, for which I produced an explanatory list that was used at the back of the book. Some of them were expunged from the English version for legal reasons but I wasn't really party to that process.
So then the book came out in the UK and didn't get quite as much attention as it had in Germany. Apparently it was reviewed in the Financial Times but I didn't see that. Some bloggers responded well, some less so. The Amazon reviews tend to blame me for their not liking it, but are kind enough not to mention my name. Part of the problem may be the description: "A modern-day Cold War thriller: Robert Harris's Fatherland meets John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." This is pretty inaccurate - actually the novel is more literary than these examples and was inspired much more strongly by Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. So if readers are expecting plain, clean, entirely plot-led crime writing they are indeed likely to be disappointed.
Never mind. Harvill Secker submitted Plan D for the award regardless and I'm thrilled that it was one of six titles chosen out of sixty-four entries. The CWA calls it a fine debut and writes: "This novel impressed with its ambitious, wide-ranging counterfactual
history of two Germanies in which nothing happened in 1989. In this East
Germany, everyday life under dictatorship requires remarkable
navigational skills, which Wegener, the detective, does not always
possess. Urban’s evocation of grimy corruption is punctuated with wit,
not least in the conclusion." I hope the nomination helps get more positive attention for the book in the UK.