Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Martin Chalmers, 1948-2014

Martin Chalmers was buried today at the Alter Matthäus Cemetery in Berlin, in the same ground as the Brothers Grimm, the poet May Ayim, the musician Rio Reiser and many other Berliners ordinary and extraordinary in their own ways. It was his favourite cemetery. Martin's fellow translator and writer Iain Galbraith read Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" by the grave. 

I didn’t know Martin well but our paths crossed a few times here in Berlin, all of them memorable. The first was on a long evening of eating, drinking and talking with writers and translators at the Literary Colloquium, followed by a boozy train ride back into the city. It was a good way to meet someone I’d admired – anything but formal – and I remember him talking very knowledgably about Berlin history in a voice that was occasionally too quiet, and also about becoming a grandfather. The most recent occasion was in April of last year, when Martin had already been diagnosed with cancer but agreed to talk on a panel at a workshop for young translators. Although I cringe to ask people to do things for free, Martin was perfectly happy to pass on some of his experience and seemed to enjoy discovering an obscure corner of Neukölln; his bio states that he lived in Rixdorf, the old name for the borough or the lesser-known name of a very small part of it. That strikes me as typical of him – a winking eye for historical detail as expressed in words.

Martin was originally a historian but became a translator when he’d “run out of money”, as he said in an interview for New Books in German. He grew up in Glasgow; his mother was German and he spent a lot of time as a child with his German oma, who looked after him but had no English. At the funeral, his friend Robert Lumley said he’d gone to the pictures with her and whispered translations into her ear. I understand he recently found the place in East Prussia, now Poland, where she grew up. You can read some of Martin’s contemplative writing about his family, and other things, on his website.

Martin translated a whole swathe of German-language writers, mainly twentieth-century and contemporary, acting very much as a champion for them: Bertolt Brecht, Hubert Fichte, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Erich Fried, Herta Müller, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Joachim Fest, Sherko Fatah, Alexander Kluge, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard, Erich Hackl, and his partner Esther Kinsky. He was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck prize in 2004 for his translation of Viktor Klemperer’s I Shall Bear Witness – three volumes for which he also wrote the introductions. He taught at the British Centre for Literary Translation summer school; our mutual friend Stefan Tobler was one of his students, bitten by Martin’s bug several years before he set up And Other Stories

At the funeral, friends spoke of Martin Chalmers as a pacifist with a huge amount of empathy and a great walker, a man who loved exploring cities on foot and talking on the go. The Seagull Books publisher Naveen Kishore tells a story about Martin and Esther taking him on a very long walk in the Berlin snow; I think they ended up at the cemetery where he’s now buried. He loved music and poetry and the ceremony reflected that beautifully – anecdotes about punk gigs, a story of Martin’s after which we attempted to sing his favourite hymn, a song by the graveside, Brecht and Arnold and Johannes Bobrowski. I will miss his occasional kind emails correcting things I got wrong on my blog and proffering his own opinions, his dry sense of humour and his taste in German literature, which was different to mine. 

I will think of him, always an inspiring man, and I will try to be as good a translator and advocate as he was and as active a walker and a thinker.


Charlotte said...

I'm so sorry to read this. I know only of Martin, as a highly respected translator: I wish I had had a chance to meet him in person. I'd like to send, via your blog, my heartfelt sympathies to Esther, his partner, and to all who knew and cared for him.

Mandy Wight said...

Thank you for this tribute to Martin Chalmers and for the introduction to his own writing on his website.In 2002 the book 'Beneath Black Stars' was published, an anthology of translated fiction by contemporary Austrian writers edited by Martin and including his own translated work. This book opened up a world of writing on Austria for me, thanks to Martin Chalmers.