Monday 31 March 2008

Hamburgerz Reveal All

Hamburgers! If you're reading this and you happen to live in or near that great city, and you happen to be at a loose end on Wednesday evening, and you happen to be interested in good books and translation, then you're in for a treat.

For it is the turn of the Hamburg crew to reveal all. I can almost certainly guarantee there will be no nudity, however, at least not in the flesh, heh heh. Contrary to popular tradition, I have actually read one of the books in question and can assure you it is very good indeed - namely Naomi Aldermann's Disobedience, presented by her German translator Miriam Mandelkow. She'll be chatting with the ever-so-good Annette Kopetsky and the really-rather-entertaining* Isabel Bogdan, who's translated Tamar Yellin's The Genizah at the House of Shepher.

I'm really rather envious of all those Hamburgers.

* I do know these hyphens are superfluous, dear colleagues, I just wanted it to match the adjective before.

Tatort Translation

Last night's Tatort was a real feast for the eyes. Detective Charlotte Lindholm was on maternity leave (and looking very flat-stomached for it), but snooping around a Kleingartenkolonie on the tracks of an old murder. Now a Kleingartenkolonie is a wonderfully German thing - upmarket allotments with houses on them, run by committees with rules, rules, rules - how big is the building, when may the parties barbecue, how many fruit trees are required, etc. etc. And this one was a prime example, with the costumes and casting departments doing their very best to make it scarily close to the cliché. You can watch the trailer here. There appears to be a "gay gardeners" faction now actually, at least in Berlin, but they weren't represented in this episode.

Anyway, I'll come to the point, shall I? Charlotte Lindholm's comic relief flatmate is a crime writer, and has written a splatter book featuring satanists that everyone keeps praising at inopportune moments. And one day he receives a phone call out of the blue. He puts the phone down and looks dead chuffed - it was Random House in New York - they want to translate his book! He imagines the English title - The Circle of Hell - my, doesn't that sound good? OK, I thought, that's exciting, a German crime writer getting a call from New York. Nice to see people thinking of translators occasionally, even if Random House are hardly going to ring up the lowly author when they should actually be dealing with his publishers' rights department.

But it got worse. The very next day we see the writer sitting at his desk, disgruntled. He is brooding over a thinnish manuscript with an English title - The Hounds of Hell or some such. Oh, is that the translation? asks the detective. Yes, but they've changed the name...

Hello? So Tatort is written overnight by computer, is it? Because that's obviously what Random House did in this episode. They took the German book, presumably the hardback edition, fed it into a slot in their special translation machine, and out came an English manuscript. The Bertha translation method. I was appalled. Do scriptwriters really imagine a translation goes that quickly? Even I know that writing screenplays takes months and months or even years, what with all the tweaking and fiddling that goes on after the fact. But Tatort couldn't even muster a mention of an actual human individual being involved in the translation process. Maybe Random House should sue. I would.

Friday 28 March 2008

Kaminer for the Weekend

A couple of people on the Guardian piece about German books have recommended Wladimir Kaminer. Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion I might know who one of them is. My inner jury is very much out on the whole Kaminer phenomenon. I really enjoyed his first book, Russian Disco, but since then he's been so in-your-face, at least in Berlin, that I've kind of had enough.

According to Literary Rapture, the English translation of Russian Disco prevented it from doing all that well. But you can read two stories by the man himself, translated by Liesl Schillinger, on Words without Borders. Enjoy.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Translator TV

So exciting. John E. Woods was on the news last night.

You can watch the whole item on the presentation of the Goethe Medal here. If you don't want to watch all of last night's Tagesschau, just skip to 11:51 for the translator-relevant bit.

Black/White Germany

I've been reading the book Deutschland Schwarz Weiss by Noah Sow. It has an extensive English-language website here, in a slightly faltering translation, unfortunately. You can read a couple of extracts online - but the translator is not credited. The book is subtitled "everyday racism" and really does touch on a hell of a lot of sore points in Germany. Some of the examples the author presents are absolutely hair-raising, from strangers grabbing her hair to white mothers calling their black babies "little monkeys" (strangely, my white German mother-in-law calls her very blond son that too).

So, what do I think? First up, I found the style and structure incredibly irritating. The author works in radio and has written the book in a style I find just too conversational for comfortable reading. There are lists, interviews, suggestions, imaginary questions and answers, asides, photos with ironic captions, and I was almost expecting smilies to crop up at any moment. And while it's perfectly legitimate to quote from blogs and online forums to reflect public opinion, one or two of the sources for the factual material are too informal for my liking. Nevertheless, the book does seem well researched and more than just a compilation of "racism I have experienced". There are plentiful footnotes, an index and suggestions for further reading. Perhaps Sow is trying to straddle the divide between academic writing and actually reaching a broad audience. Being a minor celebrity (although I'd never heard of her), she might be the right person to do so.

Of course, it's not intended as a comfortable reading experience. The first couple of chapters are an out-and-out accusation hurled at the feet of the white readers the book expressly targets - which I felt might be better off placed further in, rather than scaring people off in the first few pages. But, subsequently humbled by rethinking one's own unconscious prejudices, the reader may then be all the more open to what Noah Sow has to say.

And that is plenty. At times I was reminded of 70s Britain - only this is Germany in the year 2008. The book made me realise how little I know about black Germans, a generally neglected subject. For example I was unaware that there have been black people here since French colonial troops occupied the Rhineland after WWI - most Afro-Germans I've known have one "non-German" parent. It also raised an issue I was aware of, but in a different context - the country's racist determination of nationality, based on "German blood". And it pays a lot of attention to language and the media - which is miles behind even Britain when it comes to showing black people and ethnic minorities in any other context than as criminals or victims. Or, of course, athletes and entertainers. The English Wikipedia entry on Afro-Germans is a case in point, carefully detailing the history and current situation, then listing almost exclusively musicians, sportspeople and filmmakers under "modern Germany". (Oh, and Naddel - a woman previously famous for being cheated on by an 80s pop star, but now, I see, topping the pops herself in Austria, in a fetching pink dirndl. Not sure if that's post-modern irony or just plain B-list celebrity survival strategy.)

So I have to say the book has worked on me. It's got under my skin, making me look differently at people and their behaviour - as well as myself and my behaviour. And it reminded me of the very talented Afro-German poet May Ayim, whose collection Blues in Black and White is available in English translation (by Anne Adams). Get Amazon UK's last copy here, quick!

Germany has a long way to go on the racism front, and this book is a moving testimony to that fact. On the book's website, the author writes:

I would like to see my book translated in order to start a new and widespread discussion in as many societies and countries as possible about whether we’re actually still making progress or if we ceased somewhere along the way at the level of miniature concession of the majorities.

I certainly wish her luck with that. Whether it's a landmark piece of writing that will stand the test of time, I doubt. But it just might be the straw that breaks the camel's back, opening enough people's eyes to provoke debate in Germany - and actual change.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Guardian Readers Prefer Böll

But they can't do umlauts. The Guardian book blog hits Germany on its world literature tour. It's quite revealing in that almost everyone who posted only knows dead male writers. I have to go to bed now.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Overly Adoring Fans

I've noticed a strange phenomenon in several German books written by men. Let's call it the "adoring female fan" syndrome.

It first caught my attention in Ingo Schulze's award-winning Handy. Strangely, although I know John E. Woods has been translating it, the book is not yet available in English. Maybe later in the year. Anyway, one of the really rather good short stories is about an author on a reading tour in Egypt. Apart from playing with your mind by naming his translators John E. Woods (English) and Samir Grees (Arabic) and making it plain that the first-person narrator is very much himself, Schulze writes about his companion on the trip, Sheila:

Sheila and I had met at a reading in Koblenz at the end of 2003. She had joined us for a meal afterwards and subsequently accompanied me to my hotel, along with the bookseller. Could she have a look at my room and the view of the Rhine, she asked when I was saying goodbye. I really had been raving about the view of the Rhine.

Sheila is the archetypal adoring female fan, young and attractive and straight-forward, until she falls out of love with the author and into love with a young Egyptian, that is.

Then there's Selim Özdogan's slightly rambling novel Mehr. The narrator is a struggling author and has a fling with a female fan.

A woman with a bottle of beer in her hand came and stood next to me.
- I've read your books. Very good, I must say, I liked them a lot.
At first I didn't know what to say. It wasn't every day that someone came up and talked to me like that. I smiled at her.
- Glad to hear it.

But of course, he is wracked with guilt for cheating on his girlfriend (unlike in the story above, at least nominally) and it all ends in tears.

And then there's Maxim Biller's Liebe Heute. The short story collection will be published in English in June, translated by - you guessed it - Anthea "must be incredibly busy" Bell. I can't for the life of me find the reference now, but I remember reading there's a similar story in there. You get the message, author has sex with adoring female fan, it all goes wrong, cue melancholy ending. By the way, you can read an interview in English with Biller in the New Yorker here.

So there must be something behind it. Either German readings are a hotbed of hormonal activity, with attractive readers throwing themselves at their favourite writers like rock groupies, or that's every (male) writer's secret wish. I must pay more attention at the next one I attend...

Friday 21 March 2008

Buying Rights

I read yesterday (embedded deeply in this article) that Piper have sold the rights to Hape Kerkeling's mega-bestseller Ich bin dann mal weg to the USA. Now before I let loose I have to admit that I haven't read the book. It's an autobiographical account of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela by a popular German comedian.

And it had sold about 2.7 million copies by January of this year, apparently - making it Germany's highest-selling non-fiction book ever.

So here's how the system seems to work: one country's publishers present their bestsellers to US/UK/Egyptian/Slovenian publishers. Because the books have sold well in the country of origin, the foreign publishers assume this will be the case in their country too. That means they have a vague guarantee that it won't be a flop. See Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Bernard Schlink, Umberto Eco, etc.

But sometimes this system just doesn't work. Take, for example, the British book Is it Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? This is a fairly amusing compendium of things that are shit. The classic "bathroom book" for dipping into every now and then. Only the things that are shit are very British. Very British indeed. As I recall, they're things like the Daily Mail newspaper, Lemsip or the Mitford girls. But it was a Christmas hit (my dad got two copies in various stockings) and sold by the bucket-load.

So the German publishers Goldmann bought the rights and had it translated, by Elvira Willems. Apparently, she had a fairly wide brief to just make up German things that are comparatively shit to minor British royalty and brand-name products. And let's face it, there are plenty of shit things in Germany as well. But its Amazon site paints a sorry picture: five customer reviews, all with one star (I don't think you can award zero). Here's a little taste, proving my point:

There really are far too many annoying things in the world, and a few of them have found their way into this book. For example, Che Guevara merchandising, Big Brother videos, comedy clubs, film warnings, etc....There are a few things in this book that I can nod my head to. But then there are very many entries - things, brands, people, media - that are simply typically British and that nobody knows here. But that's hardly the authors' fault, seeing as they are British. It's still a shame. Or have you ever heard of Vernon Kay, Boris Johnson or Philipp Green? Unfortunately, there are far too many of them in this book, so that only about half of the content makes sense to the average German consumer.

Which brings us back to Hape Kerkeling. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but his is a celebrity book. It sold well because everybody loves him and is interested in his personal mixture of Buddhism and Christianity, what he ate on the road, how his feet felt at the end of each day and the strange people he met along the way. And again, correct me if I'm wrong, but a celebrity book by someone you've never heard of is, er, missing the point ever so slightly.

Plus, the subject has already been done to death in English. There's Tim Moore's Travels with my Donkey for the comedy take and Shirley Maclaine's The Camino: A Pilgrimage of Courage. And even that is only at number 30,112 in the Amazon US book sales charts. And Shirley Maclaine is really famous.

So despite being happy that another book has made its way across the pond, I can't help feeling someone might have made a bit of a mistake here. But judge for yourself. Here's a pdf extract (in German).

Wednesday 19 March 2008

€ 15,000 for Fritz Vogelgsang

Yet another great thing about the Leipzig Book Fair (let me know if this is getting tedious, but I don't get out much) is that it awards a very public prize for the best translation. This year's winner is the tricky-to-pronounce Fritz Vogelgsang, for his German version of Joannot Martorell's Old Catalan epic romance Tirant lo Blanc.

The prize money is nothing to be sniffed at, although Vogelgsang once allegedly threw away a letter telling him he'd won the Wilhelm Merton Prize - he thought it was advertising from a bank - so maybe he's not bothered. The judges commented:

Vogelgsang has put Martorell's Old Catalan into an elegant and laudably modern form of German. His text transports the colourful, entertaining, exciting nature of this first realistic novel to perfection.

And according to the VdÜ, Vogelgsang has had a pretty colourful, entertaining and exciting life himself. Born in 1930, he studied in Spain and spent time studying No theatre in 1950s Japan. He's been a freelance translator for an impressive 28 years, writing out his translations by hand and typing them up later. He has won squillions of prizes, including a Bundesverdienstkreuz medal. Vogelgsang has translated Teresa von Ávila, Juan Goytisolo, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Juan Ramón Jiménez and Antonio Machado - among others.

What I found most entertaining and exciting at the awards ceremony was the contrast between him and the other prize winners. The translators go first, as - let's face it - fewer people are interested in us than in the non-fiction and fiction categories. So the winner was announced, and Fritz Vogelgsang got to his feet calmly, made his way to the stage and graciously accepted the proferred large blue folder and bunch of flowers - "For me?" He was wearing a lentil brown ensemble, slightly stretched as it seemed, and carrying what I can't help calling a matching handbag, with long brown suede tassles.

The other two winners - Irina Liebmann and Clemens Meyer - were about a million times more worked up than the seasoned translator. Both swayed to the stage, weighed down by adrenalin, and held excited and slightly incoherent Oscar-style speeches. Both had dressed up rather than down, I think it's safe to say. And both seemed, in contrast to Vogelgsang, like absolute amateurs at the whole prize acceptance game. Not that I'd be any different...

Tuesday 18 March 2008


I mentioned before the book fair that I was looking forward to Krautgarden - and it really was one of the highlights. A Friday night with 17 German, American and Canadian authors reading at a huge former cotton mill. Obviously they couldn't all read in one place, so there were four separate venues, all on the same impressive site.

We chose the curiously named Überwensch, which turned out to be a large and rambling loft-style flat inhabited by a group of artists, who sold beer out of their own fridge. Having finally located the actual reading, we sat down and waited for the show to begin. First up was Thomas Pletzinger, and I'd been looking forward to finding out what's behind the hype. He read from his brand spanking new debut novel, a story about a bizarre New York party with water pistols on the walls. And I was disappointed. It was hard to follow, his delivery was no great shakes, and I wasn't interested in the subject matter. My friend liked it though. A shame really, I had so wanted to like it because he's billed as a translator.

His reading partner was his mate Nicholas Kulish. NY Times' man in Berlin, with impeccable manners and good German. An elderly man in the audience, seemingly slightly upset that people were reading in English, asked him to slow down a bit, and that made it all the better. His book is an entertaining story of a gossip columnist embedded in Afghanistan, I think. I enjoyed it a lot, and my friend bought it.

Then came Jan Costin Wagner. He had spotted the keyboard at the front of the room and announced shyly that he'd be playing some music in between his reading - because "it's by me too so it fits in very well." I was the only one who laughed at that. Anyway, his reading was excellent, really capturing my attention with what sounded like a literary work playing with the crime genre. His playing was tinkly, but I don't do music. He was the highlight of the evening, for me at least.

The last writer we saw was the Canadian Peter Behrens. He broke the age mould, and is a Hollywood screenplay writer too, as far as I know. I loved his reading, about a young Irishman in 1847 trying to get to the States. But I found the little plot twist we heard a little clichéd - a girl running off with his money, then wrapping him around her finger again. My friend couldn't deal with his dreamy delivery, but I enjoyed it.

We decided to move on at that point - the natives seemed to be getting very restless. As we left, it turned out that about 600 people wanted to get in to see PeterLicht. The man (?) is a self-made multimedia phenomenon, an artist who makes himself all the more interesting by remaining anonymous. He's made a few pop records and published a book, and he won some prizes at the Ingeborg Bachmann competition in Klagenfurt, Austria. You have to be invited to participate, but otherwise it's a bit like a literary Eurovision Song Contest, with an audience prize determined by who has the most friends. PeterLicht won that one, and another one. Here's a tiny snippet from his rather eclectic book:

The English
The English wait their turn and dream of skin pores with hairs coming out of them. The Englishman sees them (the pores) in dreams, magnified from very close up. The soft skinny dent, the tiny crater out of which the hair palm rises up, that occupies his mind.
England is a revolution-free country. Nothing would ever come from there that threatened the status quo. That's down to the leather armchairs filled to bursting with saliva that stand around everywhere (lounge chairs). Nobody wants them to pop.

I don't know how they solved the problem. The room probably had a capacity of 150, so there'll have been a hell of a lot of disappointed punters. We struggled out, pushing our way between them and telling them they weren't going to get in - but no one listened.

The Leipzig event was partnered by two readings in New York. I've been finding it very difficult to find any information about how they went, although the previous events were apparently well attended. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who knows, as I think it could be a great thing for German books.

Sunday 16 March 2008

How Do I Love Thee, Leipzig...

...Let me count the ways.

I love thy friendly citizens, I love thy beautiful lilting, round-vowelled dialect that makes me want to take the taxi driver home with me, I love thy ridiculous wedding-cake buildings that make me expect Batman to come sailing out of the sky at any moment, I love thy amazing main station that I get lost in every time I venture into it, and I love thy monumental book fair.

And of course I love the fact that you awarded your book prize to Clemens Meyer. I managed to sneak in to the awards ceremony - or maybe it was just open to anyone interested, who knows? And Mr Meyer was pleased as punch - as was I, only less demonstratively so. I've been trying to find the photo that made someone a nice little earner - Meyer throwing his arms up in the air after an initial celebratory punch, spilling beer on all and sundry. If I find it I'll add it later.

I'm still overwhelmed by the wealth of literature I injected myself with over the two days I was there. Such a high concentration of written words read aloud and discussed at length is great - you can compare and contrast at will, because no sooner have you heard one writer than you can go and see the next. You can catch chunks of books you've been thinking of reading, and decide whether or not to bother. Anything that stands out in your memory must have something really special about it.

So here are my personal names to watch:

Finn-Ole Heinrich
Katja Oskamp
Jan Costin Wagner - whose Ice Moon is available in English (translated by John Brownjohn).
La Mer Gelée - a Franco-German magazine.
Dagyeli Verlag - for seemingly exciting Turkish literature in German.
Jan Off - for ex-punks.

By the way, I have to take back a previous remark that the Germans aren't into celebrity books. The book fair was overrun with schoolkids chasing after Charlotte Roche, Helge Schneider* and some tall geezer whose book is called Drama Baby Drama. No idea who he is, but he certainly caused a lot of jammed-up aisles as young girls with cameras jostled for the best view.

And what's my favourite thing about the fair? All those young girls dressed up as manga characters. Apparently you get in free if you dress up as a manga character. Maybe I'll try it next year...

* I love the little caveat in the Wikipedia entry on the German comedian Helge Schneider. It says: "Most of his material is heavily language dependent and therefore does not translate well into other languages." Let's not go anywhere near that "do Germans have a sense of humour?" cliché here. Suffice to say, I don't find Helge Schneider even remotely funny myself, but every German I know falls about laughing the moment he utters the word "rice".

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Something for the Long Weekend

If you're condemned to stay at your desk over the weekend rather than rollicking at book fairs, here are a few consolations:

Dedalus, the British publisher nearly wiped out by the Arts Council, has been saved in the nick of time and will be bringing out lots of lovely translations. Here's a sample from Markus Orth's The Staff Room - translated by Mike Mitchell. Via the amazing Three Percent.

And the German publisher Rowohlt is celebrating its 100th anniversary, with much "tamtam" as the Germans say. Here's an entertaining article (in German) from the Hannoverscher Allgemeine Zeitung about how they used to edit their translations (with croché). Via the Complete Review.

Plus a short but sweet review of Irmard Keun's Child of all Nations (translator Michael Hofmann) in the New Statesman. I'm ordering it now.

I'll be back next week.

Leipzig Here I Come

Have I mentioned how much I love the Leipzig Book Fair? Well in case I haven't, I really love the Leipzig Book Fair. I would say it's the highlight of my year as a German book lover.

Some people may have been to the Frankfurt Book Fair. But don't be fooled into thinking Leipzig is the same thing for Ossis. Oh no. Because while Frankfurt is all about wheeling and dealing, with the big Anglo-American publishers barricading themselves in behind fortress-like constructions with fierce guard-dog receptionists, Leipzig is for readers. The German publishers present their spring releases at friendly and accessible booths. Hoards of schoolkids flood the building, blocking up the comics and audiobooks sections. And there are about 250 readings at the fair itself and around the city - that's every day, mind you.

Then there's the book prize. It's not quite as high-profile as the German Book Prize awarded at Frankfurt in the autumn. But it's just as high-quality. The website Litrix has a new feature article about it here, for more qualified criticism than mine last month. What the article doesn't mention is that there's also a prize for the best translation. And the amazing thing, I think, is that you can just hang over the balustrade and watch the announcement and awards ceremony. Last year there was a bit of a scandal when the non-fiction winner was actually a translation - Saul Friedländer's Years of Extermination - but the security men wouldn't let his translator Martin Pfeiffer in. But when Friedländer was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade last autumn, they did graciously allow Martin to attend the ceremony.

Anyway, enough clouds on the horizon. The sun is shining in through my window (sort of), I've finished almost all my translation for the day, and I'm now going to wade through the huge programme to try and plan an itinerary that ensures I go to the maximum amount of interesting readings with the minimum effort. I'm especially looking forward to the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht tomorrow - 44 writers plus disco dancing. And the young independent publishers, and the American-German readings in Krautgarden, and maybe getting a taste of Croatian literature. Not forgetting the lcb's presentation on German literature in translation followed by the ever-popular Translators' Happy Hour on Friday...

Monday 10 March 2008

Thank You, Hartmut Mehdorn...

... for providing shelter in your S-Bahn stations for Berlin's drug dealers and their clientele while the underground stations are barricaded up for the duration of the BVG strike.

... for being so utterly dislikeable that I have no qualms about telling 7-year-old girls worried about the threatened train strike that it's all the bosses' fault. And no, we aren't going to get a car. No, we really can't afford it. Yes, I know most of your friends' parents have cars but we're still not getting one.

... for giving us a jolly good laugh at your syrup on the news last night.

... and for finally getting it together to fully recognise the GdL as a relevant union so that I no longer face the dilemma of whether going to the Leipzig Book Fair by train would be crossing a picket line or not.

Eh? What?

Friday 7 March 2008

Selim Özdogan Double-Whammy

To start off your weekend (and mine), a link to a translation from Die Tochter des Schmieds and my translation of a text Selim read recently in Kreuzberg, with many thanks to the author. I promise to shut up about him for a while after this. Probably.

No better or worse, just different

There are people who think literature is about prizes: Bachmann, Büchner, Booker, Nobel and all the rest of them. There are people who think literature is about education, about reading the classics and referring back to them, that part of the creative process is a question of using one’s memory. There are people who think writers have to have a command of the language, have to master it, to put on a show like a lion tamer. Masterful, they call some writers, as if it were a question of power and authority. There are people who think the writer’s task is to explain the world and its conditions, society and its crises. Who think writers are capable of saying profound things about the problems of our times. Who lay greater store by the opinion of a respected scrivener than by that of someone else who happens to have a different profession. There are people who think literature is about being a somebody somewhere, becoming or being a factor, marking oneself off from the rest. There are people who think the point of literature is to change the world.

No doubt they are all right in their own way. Yet to me, these people seem to be in the majority, and they seem to have some kind of sovereignty over defining what literature is.

When you’ve reached the end of your tether, when you have no idea what’s going on in this world and why you’re here, when it looks like you understand even less than everyone else, when every day poses new riddles, when there seems to be no way out, when all your paths lead uphill and they all come to dead ends, when desperation and loneliness blend together so well that you can’t tell them apart any more, when you feel like you’re separated off from everyone else, by a wall that seems no thicker than a rizla, but you can’t break through, when you can’t manage to tell anyone what you really think, and when the only thing you find that helps is words, that’s when literature can come about as well. When you say, fuck it, I’ve got nothing to lose anyway, I’ll just hammer it all out. When you say, I don’t care about anything else, I’ll live or die with this shit, when you say, this is the only way I want to end it all, when there’s nothing else left, nothing at all, that’s when you don’t even think about mastering language, that’s when it’s your way out, no matter how thorny, steep and rocky, no matter how dead the end may be.

That doesn’t mean what you write is necessarily any good, far from it. But it does mean you’ve got a bum deal out of life, because you’ve ended up in a business where it’s the others who make up the rules.

Translator Wins Medal

This makes me so happy! As the VdÜ has pointed out, John E. Woods is going to be awarded the Goethe Medal. Hooray! That puts him on a par with Karl Popper, Billy Wilder and Daniel Barenboim!

The medal is awarded - finds sober voice again - to honour outstanding achievements in the field of international cultural mediation. It's an official state medal presented by the Goethe Institut. And John E. Woods will presumably wear it on every possible occasion - I certainly would. I wonder if it's on a little pin for his jacket or a full-on Jim'll Fix It-style dangler?

Here's John on John:

"There are many images for what the translator does. The one I finally hit on for myself is that I am essentially a performing artist, in much the same way as the violinist or musical performer takes a musical score – for other people simply black dots on a page – and turns it into something that others can enjoy. I think that we fulfill the same mediating position."
In: Harman, Mark: "A Conversation with John E. Woods". Translation Review, Nr. 44/45, 1994

So modest. John has translated all sorts of impressive people - Doris Dörrie, Thomas Mann, Arno Schmidt, Ingo Schulze. He also claims to be the only translator in the US who makes his living out of literary translation alone. Only the thing is, he's not - in the US, that is. Because he lives right here in the heart of Berlin - round the corner from me. I sometimes see him out shopping, and stop to fawn embarrassingly because I'm so utterly in awe. Next time he goes down to Extra, I hope he'll be sporting his medal for all to see. Then I'll march up to him and shout it out to all the other shoppers and staff: "Look! Behold this beautiful shiny medal! This man has been honoured for his outstanding achievements in the field of cultural mediation! Bow down before his hallowed feet and give him a discount on the gerkins, O ye of little faith!"

Thursday 6 March 2008


I often suffer from a guilty conscience about buying books from Amazon instead of real-life bookshops. So whenever I enter an actual bookshop, I'm much more likely to buy books than I used to be. The other day I was buying birthday presents for a certain little girl, and felt drawn to the display at the front of the shop for adults. This book caught my eye, by someone I only knew as a singer I didn't like very much. Going back to my thoughts on the dangers of mixing music and literature, I decided it sounded interesting enough to warrant buying nevertheless.

It doesn't sound like a very promising start, does it? But I unwrapped it at the tram stop and dived right in. And it was worth it! The prologue in itself is fascinating, a moment of exhilaration captured on paper, when the locals tear down the fence between East and West Germany on the river Elbe.

"Jo thinks much more of Jens, he comes up and up like heartburn. How can he not be here?"

And the book explains why it is that Jens wasn't there but his friend Jo was. It seems painstakingly written, with every word tuned over and over and considered a thousand times. After the prologue, we return to the present, with grown men coming back home and confronting their pasts. Or not. The subject matter was something I wasn't really familiar with: a village on the inner-German border where the security measures were extra-harsh, moving suspect families away and establishing a dense network of Stasi informers. But while the film (and novel) Sonnenallee deals with that on a very light-hearted note, this book is more ponderous, but without becoming overly sentimental or weepy.

The first chapter, or at least a version of it, was Böttcher's entry for the Klagenfurt literary competition. And I think if he'd entered the prologue or the penultimate chapter, he'd have raised temperatures a bit more. But this part is rather leaden, which of course it has to be. At first I was disappointed by the present-day storyline, but I was drawn deeper and deeper as the secrets unfolded and the characters spun out of kilt. Then the beautifully told narrative climax that had my heart racing. It all adds up to a very good book indeed.

I loved the fact that the protagonist became a political rebel through reading science fiction. Here's one of my favourite parts:

"The world upens up to him in book worlds. Jens steers his view through time, efortlessly jumping great spans, and where the things are new to him, they are also present. Once he's got his teeth into a book, even dinner tastes like cosmic basalt. The toothpaste is tooth plasma. The gloopy yellow stuff his mother drinks with the other women can only be concentrated moon sand."

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Nonplussed by Men in Translation

I'm rather nonplussed by this article on the Guardian books blog. The author complains that far fewer women are translated into English than men. He's got a point; one that I hadn't thought of before.

Perhaps, as he says, English-language literature is more favourable to women than other cultures might be. Certainly, I'm not aware of a high-profile literary prize for women writers in the German-speaking countries to rival the Orange Prize, and thus promote upcoming female talent. And if we look to countries outside of Europe, I could imagine it might be harder for women to write in strongly patriarchal societies.

But it is still strange that of the eleven published translations the piece mentions, not a single one was written by a woman. Especially when you think of how many women work in translation...

So to make up for it, an incomplete list of women writing in German and available in English:

Judith Herrmann
Irmgard Keun
Julia Franck (soon)
Jenny Erpenbeck
Elfriede Jelinek
Katherina Hacker
Karen Duve
Cornelia Funke
Ingrid Noll
Christa Wolf
Zsuzsa Bank
Terezia Mora
Dorothea Dieckmann
Doris Dörrie
Eva Menasse
Mirjam Pressler
Elke Schmitter
Maike Wetzel (soon)
Juli Zeh

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Falling off the Grafitti Bandwagon

As various Berlin papers have reported, the NY Times has reported slightly breathlessly on grafitti in Berlin. There's a lot of it.

I don't usually have a problem with it. I like spotting the Banksy piece across the river from Hauptbahnhof that probably only about three people see every day. And I like the idea of people interacting with the city, leaving little messages for each other.

But there are times when all the words get too much for me. It's usually a sign that I've been working too hard. To start with, I hardly notice it. It's just the odd "Now how would we say that in English?" Then the occasional "How would we say that in proper English?" And then suddenly it picks up speed until I genuinely can't help translating every piece of writing I see around me.

That wouldn't be quite so bad if I lived in the countryside, I suppose. But in Berlin it's not just the grafitti. There are posters literally everywhere on certain streets. Ads for bands and films and plays and little tear-off strips taped to lampposts by people looking for a flat and bizarre messages pasted together out of newspaper clippings and then photocopied fifty times and stuck to shop windows. There are even spray-painted messages on the pavements, "Tanzn gehn", "Party hier lang", "Tanja ick liebe dir".

On really bad days, I can't look at people either in case they're wearing T-shirts with writing on. That's when I know it's time to turn the computer off and go and experience something - anything - first-hand.

Envious, moi?

My translation idol just has to be Anthea Bell. She translates from French and German, including of course Asterix. She's won squillions of prizes and, it would seem, predicted the success of Measuring the World. And reviewers often start off articles with something like "When I saw that the wonderful Anthea Bell had translated this book, I knew it would be good..." That's where I want to be in twenty years' time, I'm telling you.
You can read an absolutely fascinating interview with her on the Writer Unboxed website. And you can enjoy her workshop on translating Asterix at the British Council's well-designed but little-used website, if you fancy taking a deeper look. Of course, you could always just throw caution to the wind and buy one of the 368 books listed under her name on Amazon.

Monday 3 March 2008

Recycled: Pauschal ins Paradies

Nothing much to report today, so here's a recycled piece about a hedonistic reading last May. Please note that I went to my first smoke-free gig on the weekend. It smelt really bad.

We both went out without our glasses, which I think must be significant. It was a reading to launch the book Pauschal ins Paradies put together by my old hobnobbing buddy Andreas Gläser. About a million people read stories about "what I did on my holidays": Konrad Endler, Uli Hannemann,Yanneq, Jochen Schmidt, Friederike von Koenigswald and Frank Willmann. Click your way through that lot.

It was in the Goldener Hahn. You'll be pleased to hear they have nothing as new-fangled as a website. The modernest thing in there is the stainless-steel kitchen-roll holders in the ladies, holding Aldi's finest for hand-drying purposes. The beer was incredibly, incredibly cheap. The air was incredibly, incredibly smoky. And the readers (with the odd exception) were incredibly, incredibly funny. I spent much of the evening blushing, first when the drunk woman sharing our table told us how much she fancied me (after spilling beer over me and in the exact spot where I kept resting my elbow all evening). Then Mr Yaneq picked on me from the "stage" because I was unwilling to join in the German singalong rap he wanted to perform and it showed on my face. At which point Andreas shouted, "kjd, don't be a spoilsport", my lovely young man at the bar shouted, "kjd, shall I get you a schnapps?", and Mr Yaneq continued on the subject, also using my name liberally. I agreed to do that Queen "We will rock you" foot-stomping thang instead of the doo-be-doos. Strangely, no one was interested in my fascinating tales of earlier "We will rock you" foot-stomping when I regaled them drunkenly later in the evening. And I remember blushing again later on, but I can't quite remember what caused the problem.

We met lots of old friends and made a few new acquaintances, including a large rugby-player sporting advertising for an insurance company. We referred to him as the "insurance rep" for the rest of the evening. Towards the end we got embroiled in a political discussion but I can't quite remember what it was about. Not insurance anyway. We chatted in a drunken way with all sorts of literary types - mostly about non-literary matters like who got signed off sick the longest (18 months) by a dodgy doctor, just for being from East Germany and moving to West Berlin in the 80s. Apparently, the doctor was struck off the medical register after the insurance bods caught on to his game. I got all het up when my lovely young man spent too long at the bar chatting to Ms von Koenigswald. And for good measure I shouted at Konrad Endler before provoking fisticuffs on the way home. We can't quite remember what the fight was about though.

Oh yes, the book. It's a compendium of holiday stories by Berlin's prose slammers, punk musicians and football fans. We bought our lovely fresh copy (with CD) at the party and the main man Mr Andreas Gläser got it autographed by various contributors. Strangely, one of them's signature looks just like my sister's. I'm not aware of any blood relationship there though.

Anyway, the nitty-gritty is that it's a really good book. Buy it. You won't regret it. Stories of socialist holiday camps, Balearic embarrassments, delayed flights, drunken cruises, pissing off the locals, pissing off the tourists, near-death experiences with 3-year-old land lubbers, drunken Baltic saunas, etc. etc., all narrated in truly amusing mode. None of these writers adhere to the common German literary motto of "if anything happens in a story it must be rubbish". Perfect for the airport lounge.

Sunday 2 March 2008

Everybody's Talking About...

...Martin Walser's new book, so I read Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete instead. You can see the author's naked bum on a record cover here. Sadly, I can't find any English-language coverage as yet, so see this interview with nice photos in Blond mag.

Yes, it's a celebrity book. I'm actually quite a fan of celebrity books, I have to admit. My fave is Jade Goody (before the racialism incident), because it combines your bog-standard ghost-written autobiography with a misery memoir. The Germans haven't gone with the whole I'm a Celebrity, Give Me a Book Contract thing yet. That's probably a good thing really... Just imagine - Heidi Klum and Seal's joint autobiography. David Hasselhoff's favourite recipes. Boris Becker's sex tips. Doris Schröder-Köpf's book of lullabies. But I have no intention of comparing Charlotte Roche with Jade Goody - they have nothing whatsoever in common and would no doubt hate each other if they were ever unlucky enough to meet.

Roche's book is a novel. She's famous for presenting music TV, which I never watch. I did make an exception once, and saw her interviewing Mike Skinner and managing to manipulate him into saying "Don't take drugs, kids" as I recall. Very amusing. Anyway, the title translates as "Wetlands" or "Moist Areas". Can you guess what it's about yet?

It's about an 18-year-old girl called Helen who is in hospital for an anal fissure. And it's about masturbation, haemerrhoids, anal sex, body hair, avocados and, er, they fuck you up, your mum and dad. Basically. Apparently the original publisher decided not to bring it out after all, as they thought it was pornographic. It is a bit titillating at points, but it seems to be about other things too. I get the feeling Roche might have read Helen Walsh's Brass (published as Millie in German) before she wrote it. It's about a fucked-up kid who consumes her own body fluids and is too embarrassed to leave the cubicle after she's done a shit in case someone sees her face. But she'll go to a strange man's house to get her pubes shaved off, and much more besides. And she narrates her really quite shocking stories in the language of the primary school playground - it's all poo-poo and wee-wee, bum-bum and, well, what would we say? Fanny? Noo-noo? Front bottom? Down there?

And that's part of Roche's point, I think. That women do all these strange things to ourselves, yet we don't even have a proper word for our own genitals. The advantage to being a celebrity is that lots of people want to interview you about your début novel. And Charlotte Roche has been talking left right and centre about kicking over the statues of sexual taboos, about how women shouldn't feel compelled to shave their fannies (there, I managed it), about the cheek of the cosmetics industry to sell women perfumed panty liners, about how body fluids are good.

I haven't managed to finish the book, I have to admit. It upset me too much, reading about such a fucked-up kid. Plus I kept having to be careful my daughter wasn't reading over my shoulder - she was quite intruiged by the bright pink cover with a raised sticking plaster on it. But I think Roche has made her point. It may not have the strongest plot in the world, but the book makes you think. She has a daughter too, and that does make you worry about bringing up another repressed individual. So when my lovely little girl said to me yesterday, "Mama, lass mich in Ruhe mit deinem dirty, dirty, dirty" I just let her go ahead and eat that piece of cake with her brown sandy fingers. Hah!

Oh, did I mention it's funny? Here's my favourite non-disgusting bit:

"We were really great at talking in bad codes on the phone. When you take drugs you get paranoid and think you're Scarface and you're being bugged the whole time and any time now there'll be a major bust, arrest and trial, where the judge will ask you: 'Oh yes, Helen Memel, what are 'washing powder', 'pizza' and 'painting' actually supposed to mean? You didn't do any washing in the period in question, nor did you eat pizza or paint. We weren't just tapping your phone, you see, we were watching you too.'"

Not sure I'd want to translate it though. Might be rather gruelling, and the terminology research might take you to strange places you don't really want to go to.