Wednesday 30 April 2008

Unashamedly Off-Topic

Morris dancing, eh? Watching this lovely Guardian slide-show brought it all flooding back.

I remember our school May Day celebration - it was usually at the beginning of June because it always rained in early May. I was the only kid in my class with English parents, and most of the other classes had a similar make-up. I always found it so embarrassing to have to say, "My mum comes from Shepherd's Bush and my dad comes from Acton." All the other kids got to go to exciting places, because their parents came from Kenya or India or Holland or French Guyana or Turkey or Trinidad or Australia. Even Ireland was more exciting than Shepherd's Bush.

So there we were, all the shades of the rainbow, prancing around a maypole, looked upon by a benign May Queen and Jack in the Green. The oldest kids got to do popmobility to the strains of ABBA's Waterloo. It was already fairly ancient back then but Mrs. Salmon had worked the routine out once and she jolly well wasn't going to change the music, thank you. The Jehovah's Witnesses and Plymouth Brethrens weren't allowed to join in the fun, even though Alison was one of our best dancers. The year before, we'd still been wearing school-property red polka-dot skirts for our country dancing number - stripping the willow and dosie-do-ing with the boys in white shirts - but this time around it was shorts and T-shirts because we were so grown up - nearly teenagers!

Then Joanna's dad and his pals did some Morris dancing - also in white shirts, but with bells and hankies.

Of course, May Day in Berlin is slightly different.

Tuesday 29 April 2008

Translating Shakespeare

In the Guardian books blog, Nicholas Lezard rants and rages against a "translation" of Shakespeare into yoofspeak. Most people have responded by saying, basically, "Get a life, mate." And I have to agree.

But strangely, I often find that literary translators take a similarly elitist view. I've mentioned the very talented Shakespeare translator Frank Günther before. He's another one who is seemingly only willing to accept the relevancy of translations between one national/ethnic/whatever language and another, but not between sociolects or the like. I recall his very memorable and entertaining inaugural speech as FU Guest Professor for the Poetics of Translation. He put on a great show, staging a dialogue between himself and Schlegel and reading some of his excellent solutions to Shakespeare's trickiest tongue-twisters and puns. But he played other types of Shakespeare translations for laughs, including Feridun Zaimoglu's gangsta versions (without naming the translator!) and modern "Shakespeare for Dummies" versions in English.

In fact, if you ask me, all the different types of translations are relevant - perhaps not for everyone, but at least for a couple of "niche markets". So while the Germans have the "classic" Schlegel-Tieck translations of Shakespeare for ringing all the right bells in readers' collective memory, they also have Günther's more modern and less gappy versions for getting the rhyme and the rhythm across, plus others that stick to what's on the page a little more closely. And they have Zaimoglu's Romeo and Juliet and Othello for those times you just want to hear lots of swearing.

Sadly, I think it's in the nature of translators' work that we tend to be less daring than writers, let's say. A rather long list of gender components in German bachelor's and master's degrees puts it like this:

Male and female translators and interpreters act at the interface of various linguistic and cultural systems. They are therefore particularly important as agents, who both influence language use and enjoy a certain freedom within it. At the same time, their professional role within the discourse system encourages them particularly strongly to behave in a conventional manner.

We often ask ourselves not "how would I say this in my language?" but "how do we say this in our language?" - meaning that we choose phrases and words that are firmly established. So many - but of course not all - German translators tend to be quite conservative about using sometimes unwieldy gender-neutral terms. And the VdÜ seems to do a roaring trade in Bastian Sick's humorous prescriptive grammar books at its annual get-togethers (think Eats, Shoots and Leaves in German).

Of course, our "professional role within the discourse system" means we are expected to uphold the linguistic status quo rather than create neologisms and break in new grammars. And part of our work is the business of imitation, by the very definition of translation. But still. Sometimes I'd like to just go the whole hog and write "dese spirits I done cited, man, I jus can't get dem to fuck off again."

Friday 25 April 2008

Prizewinning Zaimoglu Translation

"Inspired" by three percent, I see that three American PhD students, Kristin Dickinson, Robin Ellis and Priscilla Layne, have won the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation - for their as-yet unpublished version of Feridun Zaimoglu's Koppstoff: Kanaka Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft. The website describes the book as presenting "the fictionalized voices of 26 women of Turkish heritage living in Germany... Koppstoff challenges readers to rethink conventions of religion, nationalism and femininity, and is globally significant for its contribution to debates on immigration, assimilation and discrimination–issues that resonate far beyond Germany’s borders."

A Jungle World review closes: "The rage is deep-seated. The language is wild, dense, associative, poetic. It describes the situation in accordance with the different professions, characters and temperaments: the good German is enjoying building up his hell again." What I find interesting is that the book is already ten years old, and as such reflects what was going on back then - the birth of a movement, perhaps, that I vaguely followed at the time. Back then, Zaimoglu was still moving in activist circles, and was in at the beginning of the "transethnic activist network" Kanak Attak. I'd say the claim on the Susan Sontag website that he founded it all on his ownsome is sightly exaggerated, to say the least. But the group's manifesto dates back to November 1998 - so was probably written around the same time as Koppstoff.

What struck me at the time was that people - like me, in fact - were beginning to reject the demands for assimilation or even "integration" and say: Why should we fit in with your society? And I think that's probably reflected in Koppstoff. From Jungle World again, a quote from the book:

Mihriban, 30, greengrocer: "If you live in a house and make sure the fridge is always full, keep on going shopping like a good girl, but people look daggers at you every time you want to open the fridge and take out something to eat, can you feel at home?"

Zaimoglu seems to have mellowed with age. His latest novel, Liebesbrand, is about an amour fou, a man obsessed by a woman who helps him after a coach crash in Turkey. I had to put it aside, it just didn't stoke my boiler. And the people at Kanak Attak have gone rather quiet too - their latest project seems to be a set of T-shirts. Of course, things have changed hugely since 1998 - 9/11 has shifted the focus to religion rather than ethnicity, and Germany has changed its citizenship and immigration laws (although not nearly to the extent being called for at the time). The media people work in have shifted too - there's Kanak-TV now and Zaimoglu is a critical member of the government's Islam Conference. His 2006 play Schwarze Jungfrauen (Black Virgins) was a collection of monologues based on interviews with neo-Muslim women - perhaps a continuation of the Koppstoff theme, but not as ground-breaking as it was ten years ago.

So, an interesting choice. As I see it, the book is almost a historical document - of a very exciting time. I wish the translators luck for getting it published, and will be fascinated to read it. If you'd like to read Zaimoglu's more recent fiction in English, try Margot Bettauer Dembo's translations on Words Without Borders.

Thursday 24 April 2008

More Meyer

Mister Clemens Meyer read at the Literary Colloquium last night.

I went along, accompanied in the carriage out to Wannsee by fourteen chatty nuns, all with matching glasses and black handbags. It was not unlike a small outing of septuagenarian schoolgirls. The sun was still shining as I arrived, and I settled down in a seat next to four young Finns - or perhaps Hungarians. Mister Clemens Meyer arrived late, as usual, but the weather had put the audience in a conciliatory mood, and there was little shuffling of impatient feet.

And I have to say it was worth the wait - this time. In the past, I've seen Meyer reading and it's been a very mixed experience. If he doesn't like the person interviewing or introducing him, he seems to have no qualms about showing it. If he finds the questions put to him banal or unintelligent, he lets you know. I once went to a reading where he checked his mobile for text messages during the Q&A session. But if he feels comfortable with his interlocutor, you'd better fasten your seatbelt - because you're in for a very exciting ride.

The woman at the steering wheel last night was Ina Hartwig of the Frankfurter Rundschau. And she had Mister Meyer very firmly under control. They were obviously comfortable sharing a stage, and she had obviously done her homework very well. It seemed almost as if they were just picking up the thread from a past conversation. He read Die Flinte, die Laterne und Mary Monroe and to finish off part of Wir reisen. In between, Hartwig got an extraordinary amount of information out of him.

We found out how the first story came about - a friend told him about a man they both vaguely knew and how he'd ended up in jail. And Meyer added the air gun ("I've got one in my bedroom...") and Marilyn. Hartwig asked a question that made me look like a complete ballistics expert in comparison, but I can't tell you what it was unless you've read the story already. I laughed out loud, although there weren't many other ballistics experts in the house, judging by the lack of reaction all around me. She asked him about how his success has affected him, and whether he'd stay true to "the milieu". Which sent Mister Meyer into a bit of a tizz - of course he couldn't have written about an artist or a wine salesman three years ago, and he was at pains to point out he was wearing an Armani shirt - albeit with a Schimanski jacket over it when he arrived. But he still has his old friends and still goes drinking with them. It all sounded a bit like a pop star who's made it big claiming he still goes down his old local with the lads. Although I did once see Ronnie Woods in a pub, so maybe it's not all a myth.

There was some background information too. His father, a nurse from a family of farm workers, instilled him with a love of books. His grandparents on his mother's side were artists in the GDR. He lived fifteen minutes' walk from three libraries as a child. And some serious litcrit - Genet is "too gay" for him, but Wir reisen is super-gay. They talked a bit about his story Der Dicke liebt, in which an obese teacher develops a fatherly love for one of the girls he teaches - and is condemned by the world around him. Apparently, reactions have been mixed - some saying it's a gift to paedophiles, others (mostly women) seeing that it's not about that.

Whereas in the past I have come away from his readings convinced of Meyer's talent but thoroughly put off his person, this time was different. He seemed genuinely likeable, genuinely troubled by the way people put him into a certain category - the literary representative of the "underclass". All that showing off of his tattoos back in 2006 might not have been such a good idea after all. Several times, he banged his hand on the table and reminded himself not to overdo the pathos. He seemed comfortable enough in the opulent surroundings, hemmed in by photos of other writers - though I noticed they have taken all the pictures of women down since I was last there. He joked about reading stories about drugs and sex on the Wannsee - and I left with a smile on my face.

And - what a coincidence - the new issue of the Brooklyn Rail's InTranslation features one of the stories from Die Nacht, die Lichter. It probably won't make you feel all warm inside, though. Sorry about that.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Translation Idol

no man’s land literary translation lab presents:

Translation Idol – no man’s land sucht den Superübersetzer*

Marking the first anniversary of our monthly literary translation lab, no man’s land invites all those budding, successful and prizewinning German-English translators out there to join in our first ever translation talent contest.

The text to translate is Ron Winkler’s poem “und später dann Paraboläpfel am Atem” (see below). Translate it any which way you like – fast and loose, slow and steady, straight from the hip, make it rhyme, give it a dialect, put it into iambic pentameter, recreate it as a limerick – whatever you want to do. You don’t have to be a seasoned professional – a passion for words is all it takes. Please send your translation for the contest (in Word or rtf format) by 4 May to: katy (squiggle) Don’t forget your name and telephone number.

Ideally, you should be able to attend the contest itself, at 8 pm on 6 May in the library (upstairs) at Max & Moritz, Oranienstraße 162, 10969 Berlin 36 (Kreuzberg). Just turn up with your translation, ready to read. The audience will vote on the winning version, and the poet will choose his own personal favourite. There’ll be prizes galore for the top Translation Idols. If you can’t attend, your text will be read on your behalf. It’s still well worth entering, as all entries will be published on the no man’s land website. Please let us know whether you’ll be coming to the contest when you send your submission.

So get your dictionaries out and get translating! Or just come along to participate in the audience vote and enjoy an entertaining evening of poetry and translation.

*oder die Superübersetzerin.

The poem:

›und später dann Paraboläpfel am Atem‹

unten der Garten. der spezialisierte
Wald. oben das endlose π der Sonne.

und Schönheit als eher Unscheinbarkeit.
also Wolken. insofern Wolken.

dazwischen das infernalische Obst. das
infernalische Obst.

waren dort nicht auch Grizzlyhasen?
nicht auch dort? am Zaun?

und dschungelartige Würfel
wie zu Boden geschrieene Vögel?

jemand drückte in diese sehr, sehr
verreiste Stimmung hinein die Räuspertaste

seiner Heckler & Koch. das war nicht ich,
das gehörte einer anderen Intensitätsgruppe


Ron Winkler

The no man’s land literary translation lab is a monthly meeting for anyone interested in German-English literary translation. Just turn up at Max & Moritz with a text you want to go through with the group, or come along to provide advice and moral support. The lab meets at 8 pm every first Tuesday of the month, upstairs in the Max & Moritz library.

Monday 21 April 2008

More Unpacking

Speak of the devil. No sooner do I mention the lovely Dorota Stroinska in my last post, and she goes and reveals all in a library. Not in the traditional sense of the word, of course.

The Berlin Übersetzer packen aus team is playing away this Friday - with a guest appearance at the Kurt Tucholsky Library in Prenzlauer Berg. Dorota translated Wojciech Kuczok's novel Dreckskerl from Polish into German - along with Gabriele Leupold, who was nominated for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair this year. They've already "done" this event once so I happen to know that they're both very witty, insightful and entertaining.

If you're thinking, "Damn, why can't they do that in the Rhine area?" you're in luck. Because next week is the first ever Translators Reveal All reading in Cologne. Hartmut Fähndrich and Stefan Weidner meet up next Tuesday to talk about their work as translators from Arabic at Buchhandlung Kaiser.

So two evenings to shatter illusions: Arabic literature that isn't Arabian Nights, and Polish literature that's funny as well as dark. Incidentally, my first encounter with Polish literature was when a sailor showed me and my young friends his poetry in his cabin on board a ferry to Ireland - all we could make out was the word hemoroidy. Then he showed us the stars, with Dire Straits playing quietly in the background.

The Boy with the Robber's Hands

I finished it a couple of days ago - Finn-Ole Heinrich's Räuberhände. It's the story of two boys - one has the perfect parents to the point of cliché, the other has an alcoholic mother who drinks outside the supermarket. They're best friends from the age of about 13 or so, and Samuel practically moves in with Janik and his parents. The narrator is Janik, just after the two have finished school and head off to Turkey in an illusory attempt to find Samuel's Turkish father - whose name he doesn't know. But before they left, Janik had overstepped a line and their friendship is now on the brink of collapse.

So the story takes place on all sorts of time levels. The most obvious is the tiny snippets of future at the beginning of each chapter - so you read with a permanent sense of slight foreboding, not knowing quite what's going to happen. But you're also regaled with tales from happier times - psychological tricks played on the perfect parents, a Kleingarten paradise, young love, how the two boys became friends. And then there's Istanbul, where the two of them chase Samuel's unknown father at a whirlwind pace - all heat, dust, sweat and resentment at fever pitch. And the structure works incredibly well, keeping up the pace so you're always on your toes but never irritated.

The critics have praised the film-like descriptions - which is a bit obvious really,seeing as the author is studying film - or at least he is when he's not writer-in-residence in lovely Erfurt. But it's true - they seem to glide by your mind's eye in technicolour. What I like most about the book, though, is the characters. Apart from the clichéd parents, they are all wonderfully painted: first and foremost Samuel and Janik, but also Samuel's mother Irene, Janik's girlfriend Lina, and another local alkie, Bubu. And the simmering resentment between the two boys is ever-present but rarely boils over - Janik resents Samuel for being the apple of his parents' eye, and Samuel resents Janik for having everything he wants.

The book also looks at national identities, although not overtly. Samuel has never met his father, but believes he is Turkish - and reinvents himself as a Turk. He learns Turkish from cheap cassettes, starts singing and dancing and yearns for his one true love - who has to be a Turkish girl, of course. As the narrator points out, Samuel has no idea what Turks are really like, it's all just a desperate romatic projection. On the other hand, Janik and his parents are such typical middle-class Germans it almost hurts. Wellmeaning teachers, wholemeal vegetarian lasagne, barbecues in the garden. The two (imagined) cultures meet in the middle at the boys' Kleingarten - a concept, I believe, alien to other nationalities. They create their cliché of Turkey there, in the most German of settings, alongside a grubby canal.

It's a book that makes you feel for the people who inhabit it, that makes you care what happens to them. It's a book you want to read again once you've finished the last page. I hope it'll do really well. Here's a brief sample from the very beginning:

(All his stuff and everything of hers worth saving is packed in boxes and stored in our garage. My parents helped me. Nine boxes, fourteen rubbish sacks. It took nearly three hours.)

My parents love Samuel. And he loves them. When Samuel gets on my nerves I sometimes call him their adopted child - that's his sore point, so to speak. Samuel and I have been friends as long as we've been in the same class. Nearly seven years now. And since then, Samuel's slept at our house almost every night. He's had his own bed in my room for ages. It was a present from my parents. They asked me first of course, if it was OK for me. They'd never make a decision like that over my head. But it's not as if I'd have minded. I'm not jealous, Samuel's my best friend and if my parents hadn't asked me, I probably would have asked them.

Literary Translation Lab(s)

Do you secretly translate passages from your favourite books? Are you a translator with a passion for poetry? Do you translate literature but don't have many people to read through your work? Are you looking for inspiration and support for your literary translation work?

Then you need a Literary Translation Lab. Our version here in Berlin was inspired by a Polish group initiated by Dorota Stroinska. We meet up once a month to inspect each others' translations through a literary microscope. Anyone can come, and anyone can bring translations - provided they're from German to English, as we don't feel qualified to judge anything else. We're loosely affiliated to the No Man's Land German literature magazine, and we have about six or seven regulars, with other people turning up as and when they have something to bring along.

Our first ever lab was a year ago. Three of us sat waiting around the table in the "library" at the Kreuzberg restaurant Max & Moritz, wondering whether anyone would turn up. And they did! It seems there are plenty of translation geeks out there who had been just waiting for this opportunity to meet like-minded people and work on texts together rather than just chatting and drinking - although we do that too. So far, we've looked at prose and poetry by Ludwig Hohl, Heinrich Heine, Hendrik Jackson, Clemens Meyer (natch), Wolfgang Hilbig, Funny van Dannen... and I can't remember any more but there have been about 20-25 texts so you'll understand the problem.

I for one really value the experience. Even commenting on other people's work hones your own skills, as you spot those things you do yourself in the process. And there is nothing better (or more daunting) than a room full of people taking your own translation apart for getting a really great result. Some of us faced the problem that we do translations for German publishers, which are rarely read by a native speaker before they're let loose on the world. So we now have a "free" editing service for just that situation.

What I'm most pleased about and proud of is that we've encouraged people to start translating German literature who didn't beforehand - from students to seasoned professionals. And No Man's Land #2 features a couple of texts resulting from that. If you want to follow our example elsewhere, go right ahead. Schafft ein, zwei, viele Übersetzungslabore! And if you live in Berlin and want to take a look, just come along on the first Tuesday of the month at 8 pm.

We'll be celebrating our first birthday in May. More very soon...

Friday 18 April 2008


I was going to provide something very sensible for your weekend delectation, but then this came along. It's from Germany's most-read "newspaper" - although they're not allowed to call themselves that as they don't run enough news stories - Bild. And it's a piece about the ubiquitous Feuchtgebiete/Wetlands author Charlotte Roche and her book. Usually, I suspect, the literary section is small to non-existent. But this story is filed under "Star-News".

One of my least favourite German actresses/lecturers/provocative she-rappers, Lady Bitch Ray, has apparently slagged old Charlotte off. She says: "If anyone's allowed to talk about fucking in Germany, then it has to be me! She just wants to hitch a ride on my vagina style with her book. She's just a bad copy of me."

Now then, obviously LBR is not quite as stupid as she pretends to be, seeing as she is currently writing her PhD (the semiotics of the clothes in the Bild photos are fairly clear, I'd say). But surely she realises that writing a book and making a film are two different things. And I would like to hope that more than one person in Germany is allowed to talk about fucking, actually.

Anyway, I had a good laugh at this piece, especially the moralising video that bleeps out all sorts of words in various red-faced readings from the book - the first one, in case you were wondering, is "tampon".

Zickenkrieg, by the way, translates literally as "war of the nanny goats". Alas, German is no better than English when it comes to referring to women by animal names. But that presumably doesn't worry someone who calls herself a dog.

Ms Roche declined to comment.

Jittery Tag

Nervous. Bowlserised has dared me to do the following:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

I have to cheat because I know nobody wants to read the fifth to seventh sentence on page 123 of Sesamstrasse von A bis Z. Most of the sentences are things like: "Ein Buchstabe stimmt nicht. Wie heißt es richtig?"

But also at arm's reach (must do some tidying) is Irmgard Keun's Child of All Nations. What a coincidence! Translated from German by Michael Hofmann, and recently published by Penguin Classics. I haven't started reading it yet so I'll just give you the jacket blurb:

'Irmgard Keun's hugely engaging child-narrator travels headlong through Europe and through life's lessons, while the world careens towards war. With the flashbulb of a single phrase, character and milieu are revealed to the core; and despite - or rather because of - Keun's precision, this book breathes compassion. There is room for everything - shrewdness, forgiveness, wit and loneliness - while love makes all its hopeless deals with hope.' Anne Michaels, author of Fugitive Pieces.

Nice use of the word "careens" there, don't you think? And the sentences are:

Some young Americans were sitting at the next table, drinking champagne, and waving their hands and talking loudly all at once. The Swiss man kept looking at my mother with his ill-looking green eyes. He wanted to be nice to her and treated her to a bottle of Vichy water, and said: 'You must have been very beautiful when you were younger.'

How fitting. And what a lovely slap-in-the-face compliment.

The only problem now is that I'm a bit new at this malarkey and can only think of one person to pass it on to - partly, I admit, because I've noticed similar things on other blogs I read like is a blog so I don't want people to have to repeat themselves. But then I was always one to break chain letters and the like, so who cares?

So, literary rapture, you're up next.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

London Book Fair

I think I must have "done" book fairs in the wrong order. I started with Frankfurt, which was incredibly overwhelming, moved on to lovely Leipzig, which is just the right size to be friendly but still exciting, and now London - which is, frankly, the Baby Bear of book fairs. A bit of a whippersnapper, stirring up a lot of noise, but just not big enough to stop anyone from wandering in and eating its porridge.

I'll stop that analogy right there, shall I? It was an interesting experience. Despite the Guardian's Guy Damman claiming it would be more reader-focused this year, it is nowhere near as interesting for readers as the literary lovefest that is the Leipzig Book Fair. It's all about rumours, hype and deals, says Joel Rickett in the Guardian books blog again. Interestingly, some of that hype seems to be about Feuchtgebiete, or Wetlands as it seems to have established itself in English.

But the seminar/events programme was excellent, I have to concede. Having scooted round the stalls reluctantly airing their wares inside of about an hour, I retired to the grubby "event suites" upstairs at Earls Court. Living in Germany makes you painfully aware of Britain's dirt and dinginess, and there was plenty of it behind the facades of the crumbling exhibition centre. It reminded me of our old local cinema, which went from a thriving home of cinematic fun - I think I saw Break Dance 2 (Electric Boogaloo) there - to a rat-infested flea pit to a snooker hall to a Bollywood movie temple to being pulled down for a block of flats. Only Earls Court doesn't smell of stale popcorn. And it has a lot more staff, all of them very friendly and helpful.

So what did I learn? I attended an event intruigingly entitled "Trans-Lit Trends" and found out that American readers are looking for spiritual and practical support - and that young editors are getting more enthusiastic about publishing translations - although others are wary, as the USA does not have a longstanding translation culture. I suspect that last comment was not entirely correct.

I broke off drinks with Germans (feeling way out of my depth anyway in the face of industry gossip, but at least not underdressed, which would have been worse) to find out "What UK Editors Want". The panel included Christopher MacLehose (the pronounciation is truly prosaic) - the man who champions 70-year-old translators and now has his own translation imprint. Not surprisingly, there was no holy grail of what to offer UK publishers to be had. But I did learn that they need you to capture their attention and that you need to make sure they're the right people to turn to. And that the seemingly highest-scoring method for getting into print is to attend dinner parties at editors' homes - and to take your toothbrush along, as my cynical friend added later.

And I went to an uplifting event on The Perils and Pleasures of Translation, manned by Edwin Frank, Robert Chandler, Will Hobson and the author Adam Thirlwell. It was slightly rambling, which was not helped by Will Hobson repeatedly losing the thread during long hymns to Ilja Trojanow, who he's translating. But it was, at last, an event about translation that didn't moan on about how little is translated into English. I found one of the most interesting points was Robert Chandler's about how he prefers to have his translations read by as many people as possible before publication - including some who don't speak the original language (in his case Russian). He noted that those capable of understanding the original often can't help but read the original through the translation, so to speak, and fail to spot a lot of problems in the English. Adam Thirlwell was interesting too, and has written a book about writers and translators called Miss Herbert. He made me feel incredibly stupid and I then found out he's five years younger than me and soon to be teaching at Princeton - but maybe I eavesdropped wrong there. He was nice though, if a little revealingly attired.

The sensual highlight, though, had to be the cooking presentations. It was smell-evision pure - a live TV chef with all the delicious aromas roaming free. I saw the Malaysian Chef Wan, who made something yummy and kept us amused with many quips and plenty of interesting information on the history of Malysian cuisine. Judging by the crowds of adoring fans, he's very good. Maybe my discovery of the book fair?

Having moaned all the way through this wee post, I have to say I think I'll go again next year. I hope I can have the chip surgically removed from my shoulder beforehand though.


Two new things:

English PEN has launched, "a radical new initiative, which will allow writers and readers around the world to create their own continually evolving database of world literature." Starting with a focus on the Arab world.

And New Books in German has a new-look website. Lots of extra stuff like news and events, and a fair amount of "coming soon"s. Looks lovely, and you can finally link directly to the reviews, etc. Well done, people. Not that anything could ever top the pleasure of leafing through the print magazine in the bath.

Free the Word!

We arrived in the rain. Or was it hail? London's weather was doing its very best to remind me of why I love living in Berlin. Pushed my credit card into a slot and out came two pre-booked tickets. I'm always so very impressed by technology - my friend told me it made me look like a country bumpkin when I said "Ooooh!"

And then we wandered around the huge Royal Festival Hall looking for the Spirit Level, where Emine Sevgi Özdamar was reading. It was tucked away in the basement, but looked like the coolest part of the joint. I see they're doing a poetry-cum-Northern soul & ska nite there soon. Sigh. When will Berlin's retro rockers finally dig the poetry beat, man? Although this may be one of those things one has to do oneself to get it done at all. I'm envisaging a sweaty event in the Roter Salon... But how will the rude boys and the hair-slided poet girls get along?

I digress. The venue was full to the brim and I had very nearly finished re-reading Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn when Maureen Freely and Martin Chalmers came on stage. Strange, we thought, where is the author? But she did turn up, stealing the show the minute she entered the room, with an interpreter in tow. And the reading was marvellous, everything one might wish for - two brief extracts in German followed by longer sections of Martin Chalmers' very good translation. Lots of chatting, although sometimes the need for interpreting meant the answers didn't quite match the questions. So we learnt that Özdamar dislikes all forms of nationalism and the Turkish criticism that she should write in Turkish rather than German, that she loves the German of Brecht and Heine and that the tone of the book is deliberately sober.

The format was interesting. As I've said, Emine Sevgi Özdamar has a huge stage presence, and she really dwarfed everybody else on the podium. Maureen Freely was charming and witty, but I felt that Martin Chalmers and the interpreter almost blended into the background. That's something translators do tend to do - perhaps because they see themselves as providing a service of a kind to the authors themselves. And of course an interpreter really shouldn't steal the show from whoever they are speaking for. But I would have been interested to hear more from Martin Chalmers than the couple of statements he made on translating the book.

Sadly, the event had to come to an end, and I felt there were still many questions unanswered - why are there so many shoes in the book? How does she feel about her role as one of the few actively political women in late-1960s Istanbul? How did she feel about that back then?

I was once told by a Turkish-German that Turkey "didn't have a 68". Having no idea of contemporary Turkish history, I took his word for it. Özdamar's book proves that young man wrong. The difference between, say, Paris and Istanbul is that Turkey's political spring was followed by a military coup and huge violence and repression - sending the activists into prisons and exile. And The Bridge of the Golden Horn is an excellent and moving illustration of how it all came about.

I was initially surprised that Özdamar was on the programme of the Free the Word! festival with its theme of sedition. But she fitted in perfectly. In a year in which Europe is marking 40 years since 1968 and at a time when Turkish writers are facing a tough time, she brings together both aspects of activism and exile/persecution. Plus, the book is part of English PEN's excellent Writers in Translation programme (for last year), promoting free speech and intercultural understanding. And outstanding writing of course.

Thursday 10 April 2008

Wetlands Conquers the World

According to the Bookseller, Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete has outsold all other novels on Amazon in the USA, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan. If you see what I mean.

Having said I wouldn't like to translate it, I expect British publishers won't find an established translator to touch it with a bargepole. If you fall into this category, feel free to contact me. I'd be quite happy to go back on my word for the lovely Ms Roche and her blockbuster anti-hygiene novel. We'd have to change the title though.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Gewöhnliche Leute

Back when I was peniless, I had a bit of a thing about junkshop books. You can root out some wonderful things in those boxes of books that once belonged to unpopular relatives and haven't yet been snapped up by antiquarian booksellers. And there are still certain parts of East (and West) Berlin where junkshops thrive. I used to pass one on the way to work, and brought many a hardback home with me at the end of a long day. I have a beautiful collection of Anna Seghers' works, for example, all in different bindings and editions. I bet that surprised you.

Much of what you find is books once cherished, and then almost literally thrown away when their owner dies. And of course in East Berlin, that means revolutionary adventures, socialist realism and real-life espionage. Kim Philby, Ruth Werner, John Reed, Bruno Apitz, Dieter Noll... So I like to think I'm slightly acquainted with East German literature.

Now I earn a bit more than a pittance I can afford to buy new books, and being cooped up all day translating with not a junkshop in sight has put a stop to my mania (or that particular one at least). And then along came Werner Bräunig's Rummelplatz. This is an amazing book, a force to be reckoned with, and the sample text you can find under that link is the translation I am most proud of. Ever. Bräunig's voice is by turns angry and conciliatory, comparing the Baltic Sea with a paper manufacturing plant, describing drunken nights and hardworking days, an ambitious proto-feminist and a frustrated working-class hero. He veers between stream of consciousness and almost documentary descriptions of working processes, scattering in liberal doses of literary and cultural references. And it's all so gripping. Of course, it presses all the requisite buttons - the Bildungsroman with the bourgeois professor's son turning to Communism, the Youth Brigade's hard work for the young republic, etc. etc. But what's exciting about it is that Bräunig had the guts to express criticism of the system, albeit in some of his characters' ideas. Of course that, and the ostensibly negative portrayal of the working class, got the book banned before publication in 1965. It came out for the first time in 2007.

And now the publishers have brought out a volume of his short stories, Gewöhnliche Leute. It includes seven previously published stories (from 1969 and 1971) and five unpublished texts, plus a long and informative article on Bräunig's life and work after Rummelplatz was rejected. And it's not just interesting from a historical point of view, although that is one fascinating side to it. It's one of those books I had to read with a sharp pencil at hand to underline all the wonderful bits that made me laugh with joy, all the covert criticism and all the stuff that made me want to go back to university and write about "The Role of Women in..."

It starts with an absolutely beautiful, affectionate portrait of locals in a pub. This is the only piece where the author is "audibly" present, but relates to several of the other stories. Set in a suburb of Leipzig, the narrator muses on how important our own street is to us. I say "us" and I mean that, but on the other hand the whole of the book is at pains to address East Germans directly, which I found quite touching really. Ironically, this song of praise to a cobbled street and its close-knit residents is followed by stories about men and women building high-rise housing estates. Or moving to them, or both. The ordinary people of the title. Still well written, these struck me as slightly disappointing for their tone of contented resignment. Gone is the anger, gone the frustration, gone the ambition. The last published piece tells the story of a man grown old, a good Communist who decides to move out of the street from the opening and into the estate from the second story. Bräunig picks up the final question from his unpublished Rummelplatz -

What remains when a worker dies? His work, all that he created. And the children he brought up and cared for - not just his own. And also this land and the state he leaves it in.

One of the stories stands out - it takes place on the road, not on a building site or in a town. A traveller picks up a young woman standing by the road, and she tells her story. She is an idealist - after all, this is 1968 or thereabouts. She has left her lover and is making her own way around the republic in the pouring rain. The traveller sees parallels with his own life, but she remains an exotic flash of colour in his damp grey world. If you are of a very patient nature, you can read some of it in English here.

Of course the "value-added" is the unpublished material. You can compare various bits of writing that came before and after Rummelplatz and contain much of its material, and have a dark laugh with the author at political jargon. No doubt of much interest to Proper Germanists. But I have to admit I preferred the stories at the front of the book, which I might well have been able to buy at my old junkshop. Bräunig descended into alcoholism and personal crisis and died in 1976, aged 42. I can thoroughly recommend you read his writing, especially if, like me, you never experienced the GDR at first hand.

Exquisite Distraction

I think it's a bit cheap to pick up on things from other sites I admire and repeat them, but today I just can't help it. Three Percent points out a marvellous new invention, the World Literature Forum. A mine of information and opinion, as they say. Must ration my time spent exploring it to outside productive working hours. Must get down to work. Must not read through every single thread.

Tuesday 8 April 2008


My real-life postbox was overflowing with goodies yesterday. Not one but two magazines about German books!

The first is the new New Books in German. It should be available online any day now too. If you don't know this wonderful institution I recommend you go there asap. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 pounds. For it is a magazine - as a the title suggests - all about new German books. In English. Great, eh?

What they do is, they send out loads and loads of books to readers. Not just any old Joe Blog(g)s though, they do select them beforehand. The readers write reports about whether the books are any good - and especially, whether they would work on the English-language market - and then the editors choose which books to feature in the magazine. So while it is run by the Goethe-Institut, which is of course a German institution, it is English-speakers who do the leg-work and much of the decision-making.

That means that the quality of the books featured in nbg is pretty much guaranteed, and several people have sat down and thought about their suitability for translation and publication in Britain or the US. I have heard complaints about a similar initiative from France, and the Literary Saloon points out the failings of a Japanese scheme throwing money at US publishers. The problem seems to be that native speakers of the language in question often can't tell all that well what other cultures value in literature, be it in terms of style or content. But nbg's system seems to work very well indeed - especially judging by the fact that around fifty of the featured titles have been translated into English in the past eleven years.

This issue has a beautiful new look and a new centre-page spread of recently published and forthcoming titles in English. There are about a zillion reviews, including one I'd have written very differently on Jan Böttcher's Nachglühen. I certainly wouldn't have put in the HUGE plot spoiler it contains, although I did come to the same conclusion. Don't read it if you want to actually enjoy the book, that's all I can say.

And the second treat is the German literary magazine Bücher. It's what they call "refreshingly unpretentious". That means not many people admit to reading it, I suspect. It features star authors, runs brief reviews, and is generally accessible without being too irreverent. It almost always contains a free audiobook, which I never get round to listening to. And it covers genre writing, children's books, film adaptations, and generally all those un-intellectual sides of the book world that are often neglected in other publications.

I really enjoy reading it, especially as it has lovely photos. Plus it gives me that buzz of feeling "down with the kids" - or down with the average bookshop customer. I once went to a talk on literary magazines given by an editor from a Berlin publishing house. I can't remember who she was now. Anyway, she didn't include it in her talk, as she said it was only on the market to push certain publishers' products. I'm not sure about that - and I certainly haven't done an analysis by publishing house and positivity of reviews - but it's certainly not afraid to trash the odd book now and then. This issue rips the piss out of Bernhard Schlink's new book and accuses Kirsten Fuchs of using cancer to make her boring story more interesting. Gulp.

I'll leave you with a few words from Rebecca K. Morrison's nbg editorial. She starts off listing the successes of German-language film and theatre in English: The Counterfeiters, The Edge of Heaven, Handke, Brecht and Frisch.

Is the same success paralleled in literature? Curiosity in one genre can go hand-in-hand with an increasing awareness in another and Guardian Hay Festival Director Peter Florence's statement would endorse that: 'It feels like a breakthrough year (for German literature in translation).'

Monday 7 April 2008

Overly Excitable

I'm feeling tired and emotional after a weekend with too little sleep. Why? Because I decided to jet over to London for the amazing Free the Word! festival organised by International PEN this coming weekend. And that decision left me rather emotionally drained. But never fear - thanks to Grandma's Best Babysitting and School Collection Service (love ya mum!), my family will be in safe hands while I'm away.

What convinced me was the event featuring Emine Sevgi Özdamar. In conversation with the translator Maureen Freely and the writer Elif Shafak, no less. I have to admit, I've seen Ms Özdamar (or is it Ms Sevgi Özdamar - correct me if I'm wrong) reading in Berlin before. She's incredibly entertaining. An experienced actress, she knows how to keep an audience's attention. And she's one of those wonderful authors who have the guts to say, "Please don't take photos while I'm reading, I have a double chin and half-moon glasses. But you're welcome to take some of me posing nicely afterwards."

Her novel The Bridge of the Golden Horn is available in English from Serpent's Tail, translated by Martin Chalmers. She has been one of the few women writing on the "guest worker" experience that so many Turkish immigrants went through in the 1960s, although from an unusual perspective, as she comes from a more educated background than many of those who signed contracts for manual jobs in booming 60s and 70s Germany. And I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Unfortunately, I read it too long ago to tell you anything remotely relevant about it. But what I remember most is the way it captured West Berlin and named names, from the factory where both the protagonist and my mother-in-law worked to the road where the protagonist and my father-in-law lived. But the German and Turkish worlds in those days were so far apart that they almost certainly never met. In the first section, at least, Berlin is a cold, dark place with empty streets swathed in perpetual snow.

So I'll definitely be rereading it over the next few days. Oh, and I'll be going to a couple of seminars at the London Book Fair. But more on those after the fact.

Friday 4 April 2008

Let's Read Together

I have to warn you: this is hardly new stuff, but I think it's very much worth reading.

My suggestion for this weekend's reading matter is the Supplement to Volume 4 Number 3 of Brunel University's EnterText - an interactive interdisciplinary e-journal for cultural and historical studies and creative work.

Now no chatting at the back there, for this is seriously translation-related. The supplement contains eight papers from the 2004 "Shelving Translation" conference, all about the role of the translated text in Britain today.

A lot of it is theoretical, from a comparison of reviews of translations in Spain, France and the UK to translating intertextuality. But if that's not your idea of fun, you'll find these papers are bracketed by items from translation practitioners: Anthea Bell and Christopher MacLehose, once at Harvill and now in charge of his own translation imprint at Quercus. He writes:

At Harvill I have tried to find a translator of seventy summers or more, scholars for whom high wires over the Niagara were a thing of the past. Why so senior? The translation of the mere language is presumably but a quarter of the work and the more experienced and more deeply read a translator is in the literature of the source language—as well as aware of the day-to-day ways and social and political history—the more readily he or she will recognise the landscape of literary and quotidian memory behind the language, the invisible veins beneath the surface of a text. Joan Tate, the exceptional ambassador for and tireless translator of a whole library of valuable books from Swedish, used to say that vocabulary was no more than a sixteenth part of translation. Guido Waldman, my colleague at Harvill, and himself a very good translator although only in his sixties, did not share all of my convictions about translators and was forever finding young, untried ones, and one after the other they won the best prizes.


I haven't looked at any of the others yet, but I'll be thinking of you, dear readers, as I settle down to a good long read over the weekend. Enjoy.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Book-Writers' Bookshops

The German book trade mag, excitingly titled Börsenblatt, runs a little feature series in which writers reveal their favourite bookshops. It's rather fun to read, in a geeky kind of way. But usually I'm not actually interested in Bernsteinbuch in Nittendorf, Buchhandlung Bittner in Cologne or Buchhandlung Geist in Bremen.

This time, though, Jenny Erpenbeck, a much-translated and rather good author, recommends a shop I could actually reach during a public transport strike. Just in case I have a sudden craving, you know. I have tended to avoid the shop, I think, as my strange ex-boyfriend lives round the corner, but I will have to rethink that now. Especially as the Canadian author Peter Behrens, who I saw in Leipzig, seems to be reading there on Saturday. What the site doesn't mention is that his début novel was translated by Brigitte Walitzek (Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson...).

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Cold Cream and Sympathy

Das Magazin is the best magazine in Germany. The women's mags are just as inane as their English-language counterparts, the news magazines are just as biased in various directions, and I don't much look at the top-shelf ones, although there are plenty of them. But Das Magazin stands out from the crowd, covering interesting subjects, showcasing interesting writers, and with the most fascinatingly addictive lonely hearts pages I've ever read.

Founded in 1924, it soon became Germany's most successful illustrated magazine, with Marlene Dietrich gracing the cover before she made it big. It kept going under the Nazis - although the Jewish founding editor was chucked out - by blanking out politics, but was shut down in 1941 "for war reasons". In 1954, Brecht allegedly suggested to the East German authorities that they reintroduce it, in reaction to the masses' apparent longing for glamour and luxury expressed in the 1953 demonstrations. Quite how a glossy magazine could lower the labour quotas, I'm not sure, but it became a great success, and its tradition of publishing nude photography (and the rest of the content) earned it a reputation as the most "sophisticated" East German mag.

After 1989 it kind of vegetated a bit, I have to say. I remember visiting Prague with a group of East German students in the early 1990s, and a blonde beauty read a slightly smutty story out loud from it, to the obvious pleasure of the only man in our group, who publicly sported purple underpants - in fact, either he had several identical pairs or he didn't change them all through the long weekend. But that's beside the point. It's now a very lively publication, and I can thoroughly recommend it. I particularly like the short relationship stories by Kirsten Fuchs, by the way.

This month's edition features an article about the literary translator Christa Schuenke (Shakespeare, John Banville, William Gibson...) by Sophie Diesselhorst. It's a very interesting and no doubt useful introduction to the pleasures and tortures of literary translation. Being an "Eastern" publication, the magazine makes much of her past history in the GDR - what was it like translating when one couldn't visit the countries in question, how did she survive the fall of the wall, etc. And, of course, Christa Schuenke gets a chance to raise the subject of decent pay for literary translators. She says she had thought about translating less "difficult" literature under a pseudonym to pay the rent. But she decided to use her own name, at the threat of spoiling her reputation - so that everybody knows that "you can't exist on what I do."

Good stuff. But the tone of the article does less for the translators' cause, I can't help feeling. The second sentence introduces Schuenke's physical suffering: "And now, after 30 years at her desk, her back is no longer playing along... It is only a matter of time, she says, until her shoulders can no longer bear the burden of responsibility for world literature. And then? What will Christa Schuenke do when she can no longer translate?" We then find out about her poky flat all full of books, her passion for her work, how she goes about it, how she got into it, what she finds fascinating about it - and then it's back to the suffering. Working hard every day of the week, never earning enough to feed a family or save for a pension. Campaigning for better working conditions. "Sacrificing one day a week, one seventh of her precious working time, for voluntary work on behalf of her trade."

I suppose the problem I see here is the way the article tugs at the reader's heartstrings. Of course Christa Schuenke does a great deal for the translators' cause, and as a prominent member of the VdÜ, she can get publicity - like this article - that others can't. And it's great that the translators' association and its work gets a mention too. Yet I can't help feeling that the sympathy vote is not the right way to go about achieving fair pay. Portraying literary translators as a kind of Dickensian clique of long-suffering artists - and thus suggesting we need rescuing by some kind benefactor? - is not exactly empowering, is it?

So while Das Magazin has countered the phenomenon of translator invisibility, it certainly hasn't shown us in entirely the light I would prefer. Despite the three beautiful photos and the attention paid to Christa Schuenke's great talent and experience, it makes much of her problems. The title "Kalte Sahne & Weltliteratur" refers to a not very flattering incident in which she translated "cold cream" rather too literally. And the closing lines are dripping with pathos: "Translators have always been on the short end of the stick. Christa Schuenke will fight on nevertheless - even though she herself will probably never benefit from the outcome of the battle."

What I wish they'd written is how Christa Schuenke deserves decent pay because she contributes to the success of the books she translates. That she is a creative writer and should be paid accordingly, including decent royalties. That book prices and pay in publishing have gone up over the years, but translation rates have remained at a stable and very low level. That the quality of literary translation in general - although not necessarily the work of extremely dedicated individuals like Schuenke - would benefit hugely from being better paid. There is no lack of good arguments - so why fall back on the sympathy vote?