There's nothing like an invitation to the presidential palace to trigger social anxiety. Come round, wrote Joachim Gauck in an embossed envelope, we'll have some drinks and stuff in honour of the art of literary translation. Bring a date. Bring a date: "und Begleitung". Two little words; weeks of horror. Having asked one person whose response prompted me to change their first name in my phone so as never to ask them out again and one person who wasn't in the country on the day of the event, followed by some painful soul-searching of the "Daddy didn't love me enough" variety, I finally found someone with enough pity in them to accompany me to the president's gaff.
Sadly, said sympathetic character was struck down by illness the day before. So I went on my own. Rubbing it in, the security people asked "Are you on your own?" when I arrived. "Yes," I mumbled, trying to embrace my independence. It didn't work. I turned down the offer of a chauffeur-driven ride from the security gate to the front door. Just because I can't get a date doesn't mean I can't walk a hundred yards. And then of course there were hardly any seats left, so I found myself in a block of people I didn't know, most of whom seemed to be breathing out a day's worth of coffee fumes. I assume they were from the languages department at the Foreign Office; literary translators would have been intimidated enough to brush their teeth beforehand.
So there I am, all on my ownsome, trying to eavesdrop on the couple arguing behind me (I heard "Kotzt mich an..." and "Komme nicht mehr" from the woman but couldn't quite get what it was about) to stop me from crying, which worked to all intents and purposes, when Gauck launched into his speech. It was a clever speech, a good speech, a speech that expressed admiration and gratitude. Unfortunately, it was a speech by a a former Lutheran pastor. I've always thought of myself as a tolerant atheist, but someone telling me that my profession is proof of divine miracles sent me into the kind of rage diffused only by snorting audibly in a chandeliered room full of five hundred invited guests. Audibly to myself anyway. Of course I would always dispute Gauck's cautiously worded suggestion that producing understanding out of the mutually incomprehensible is made possible by God, like the Pentecostal whatever it was. Yes, translation is an impossible feat, but so are many other things. Love, writing, bringing up kids. If we must find some metaphor for achieving them nonetheless, let that metaphor be superhero powers. Or just magic in general, for fuck's sake.
I sat there and wished very hard that the politicians the Germans had elected had chosen Beate Klarsfeld instead, until Gauck commented that it was actually his partner Daniela Schadt who suggested the evening. And then I didn't know what to think, except that I was glad he mentioned German literary translators' terrible pay.
There followed a two-hour programme moderated by the critic Dennis Scheck, who politely refrained from blacking up on this occasion. To give whoever put it together the benefit of the doubt, it must be difficult to compile a two-hour programme suitable for the president at one end of the knowledge scale and a bunch of literary translators at the other. So as to help Gauck along, they chose mostly the kind of translators he might have heard of – prizewinning writers who translate on the side – and talked entirely about translating books by men. There was some music, which ranged from the sublime to the silly (in a good way), and then we got to stand up again. Which reminds me, we all stood up at the beginning when the president walked in and I felt all rebellious like when our old headmaster came into the classroom and we collectively refused to stand up, but I didn't quite manage to stay seated this time.
Wine, bubbly, little nibbles brought round that required the very nice waiters to stand next to you while you popped them in your mouth so you could return the stick to the tray. Smalltalk. Checking out the guest list. Why such a small proportion of actual literary translators? Why did they invite that critic who once told me translators shouldn't complain about pay because nobody forced them to be translators? Why did they invite that publisher whose editor said they were sick of translators wanting so much money? What was the army officer doing at an event celebrating literary translation? Who the hell were all these people? Why were they dressed so conservatively? Why did that renowned literary translator mistake me for someone else?
At home (taxi after arriving on the late side by bus) I googled the woman he took me for. She was totally gorgeous. I felt better.