Monday 30 June 2008

Schadenfreude is...

...imagining the volume of hangover currently being suffered by the drunken fuck-wit who sieg-heiled past our building at one o' clock this morning. I hope he had to get up at 5 am for an extra-early appointment at the job centre, preferably followed by a bollocksing from his ex-wife for not paying maintenance and a date with an angry bank manager. And I hope he bet all next month's dole on Germany winning against Spain.

After After Klagenfurt

According to the papers, that Tilman Rammstedt story that won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is funny. That'll teach me not to watch the competition on the telly, won't it? I didn't even notice.

And also according to the papers, it was all a load of boring old crap. Although they didn't put it quite like that.

Sunday 29 June 2008

After Klagenfurt

This weekend, Klagenfurt had a lot going on. Never mind CSD in Berlin and the small matter of a football match - it was literature all the way in Carinthia. In case you don't know, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is "one of the most important awards for Germanophone literature" (Wikipedia). It takes place once a year in Klagenfurt, Austria, and is accompanied by all sorts of goings-on. And what no English-language sources seem to tell you is that it's more for up-and-coming writers than for the established greats. Being "invited to Klagenfurt" is a big, big deal for a young writer, and the past winners are all very impressive.

I had planned to watch at least some of the competition on TV, but then life sort of took over. I did catch the live judging ceremony though - and it really wasn't good television. Lots of critics and authors fumbling with touchscreens and reading prepared statements that just sounded pretentious rather than anything else. The cameras didn't linger long enough on the nervous competitors for my taste as they sweated under the studio lights; instead there were long explanations of the voting process from a lawyer - albeit in a charming Austrian accent that I'm unable to place any more closely.

And of course I'm not entirely agreed with the results. I'm disappointed that no one was particularly impressed by Thorsten Palzhoff's text, Livia, which I thought had the most interesting narration and subject matter. And my personal winner would definitely have been Patrick Findeis, with his No Land More Lovely extract promising a great, oppressive novel about village life colliding with modern reality. The title (Kein schöner Land) is a play on a German folk song, by the way, and a cheesy TV show featuring Volksmusik mimed in front of rural landscapes. Findeis did win one of the prizes, though not the most financially valuable actual Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.

Tilman Rammstedt won that, plus the audience award, reaping in a total of € 31,000. Not bad, eh? His text, The Emperor of China, is nothing to sniff at but I found it strangely uncompelling - an extract from a novel that didn't make me want to read the book (apart from the charming idea of someone crawling around with kitchen sponges on their knees, that is). It seems fairly conventional, with only the Roald Dahl-ish grandfather character to write home about. Markus Orths won the quasi-second prize for The Chambermaid, which I did enjoy. A chambermaid gets up to all sorts of odd things in hotel rooms, although the extract didn't really tell us why or work up enough interest on my part to want to find out. I also find it tragically flawed by the fact that no chambermaid would have time to do all those strange things during her shift without getting fired within a week. But maybe nobody on the jury realised that - or maybe it just doesn't matter.

But who's asking me, anyway? What I'm really pleased about is the fact that the Bachmann Prize has "gone Europe", as they say. The website has the chuzpe to assume that everyone in the world knows what this award is, but otherwise a lot of work has gone into making it multilingual. It must have been a huge task to coordinate the translations of the fourteen texts and all the little reports over the past few weeks, plus the more frequent updates over the weekend. And those translations were into six languages - no mean feat. I must say I found the English versions very good, although the punctuation was sometimes slightly skewiff.

I'd be interested to find out how the whole thing has gone down in the non-German-speaking world, so I hope they'll publish some kind of audience figures at some point. At the very least, they've provided an opportunity for writers in German to reach readers of Czech, English, French, Italian, Slovenian and Spanish. And that's a great achievement.

Friday 27 June 2008

New German Writers (and Martin Chalmers)

I've just printed off the first four entries for the Bachmann Prize, translated into English by Martin Chalmers and my mate Stefan Tobler. I shall now retire to a horizontal position and read them all. More later.

Incidentally, in case you remember Nicholas Spice's head-bashing condemnation of Martin Chalmers' Greed translation in the London Review of Books, the publishers have replied in kind. Pete Ayrton of Serpent's Tail writes:

As Spice himself notes, Gier ‘poses almost insuperable obstacles to good translation’ but this does not hold him back from claiming that Chalmers’s translation is so bad that ‘it would have been better to have left the novel untranslated.’ For sure, Jelinek’s quest to match form to the misogynist content makes for a difficult read but the difficulty is already there in the German original. Rather than allow Spice to suggest that a book were best left untranslated, the editors of the LRB should pay more attention to reviewing fiction in translation.

He gets a bit nastier after that too, but who can blame him?

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Old German Books

Really, I don't pay enough attention here to German books that aren't exactly new. But that's OK, because there are plenty of other people who do.

Today, for example, you can read two Robert Walser texts on A Journey Round My Skull, posted by a man who also runs a whole blog on Hans Henny Jahnn. Or find out about Neil Tennant and Stefan Zweig at the NYRB Classics blog. Or why not join in the discussion on Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus at the World Literature Forum? Or skip back to Walser at Words Without Borders. Lizzy Siddal, who must read a hell of a lot, looks at Kleist, Böll, Koeppen and others. And A Common Reader, another frequent reader, has reviewed books by Thomas Mann, Robert Musil and Stefan Zweig in the past and has a useful list of authors for finding the right posts.

All of the above is good solid stuff, and of course most of these sites also feature newer writers, in German and other languages. It's great that readers of English can discover German classics, thanks to the work of many dedicated translators and publishers - and bloggers too. But I must say the proliferation of "dead white men" (John E. Woods) in the English-language reception of German-language literature is astounding. So I really feel it's alright for me to continue to focus on contemporary German-language writing, seeing as no one else seems to be doing so - and I'm not exactly an expert on the old stuff.

On that note, tune your satellite dishes to 3sat for the Bachmann Prize, starting tomorrow at 21 hundred hours, CET. I'm sure the new, slimmed-down format has nothing to do with EURO 2008. Honest, guv. Let's just hope the much-anticipated translations of all the texts are better than the rather clumsy English of parts of the website.

Monday 23 June 2008

Guantánamo and Tim Mohr

Michael Faber reviews Dorothea Dieckmann's novel Guantánamo in Saturday's Guardian, and makes it sound like a very good read indeed.

What caught my eye, though, was the attention devoted to the translator. Faber writes:

Guantánamo has just won the aptly named Three Percent prize* for translated foreign fiction, thanks to the midwifery of Soft Skull Press, a small New York publishing house specialising in controversial subjects, and Tim Mohr, staff editor at Playboy magazine. Mohr, previously known for pop reviews and parodies of Star Trek, seems an odd choice of translator, but he has excelled himself, rendering the prose pitch-perfect, poetically sprung, psychologically nuanced yet natural.

Hey, great. A review that includes actual biographical information on the translator - and praises his work. That's something to write home about. And look, Faber's done the same as me and googled Tim Mohr - to no great avail, translationwise. It looks like the book is his first ever translation - a huge success, I'd say.

Mohr seems to style himself as a bit of a lad-about-town, DJing in Berlin, reviewing rock bands, editing Playboy - and he's my top tip for the Wetlands translation (I have no idea who's doing it but they've already started, whoever it is). Apparently, his "scruffy baby cheeks give him the air of a hung-over Cupid" (New York Observer). It's all downright atypical for a translator - does the man not realise we're supposed to hide modestly in dark corners, not have interesting past career paths? Which is presumably what makes him an "odd choice". But he did graduate from Harvard, so that's OK then.

It's all just about as disgraceful as Germany's very own celebrity translator, Harry Rowohlt. Not only does the man have conspicuous facial hair - he appears in a soap opera, for goodness sake! What is the world coming to? Next they'll be wanting their names on the front covers...

*Not sure this prize actually benefited Dieckmann directly in any way, but it's nice to see it mentioned.

Friday 20 June 2008

Or Maybe They're Right to Worry

Normally, I poke fun at the widely held British belief that all Germans are closet Nazis. But two years ago, the SPD's research institution, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, published an eye-opening quantitative study on radical right-wing opinions held by the general public. Entitled Vom Rand zur Mitte (From the Margins to the Centre), the study interviewed 5000 Germans on specific issues, calculating just how racist, chauvinist and downright Nazi they actually are. A shocking 26.7% of Germans in East and West Germany were found to hold xenophobic opinions, with 19% expressing chauvinism (Germany is better than other countries). "Only" 4.1% expressed opinions that relativised National Socialism or made it look harmless.

They've now released a follow-up qualitative study. Ein Blick in die Mitte (A Look at the Centre) consists of evaluated group discussions with people who responded to the quantitative survey with particularly strong approval or rejection of the statements in the interview, and with some who were in the middle. You can download the whole 497-page study for a quiet moment (in German, pdf) or just take a look at the pdf press release. Both are pretty sobering.

The researchers point out that participants found it absolutely normal and acceptable to make racist statements, even those who responded differently to the survey. Apparently, non-Germans are grouped into "good foreigners" (like me) and "bad foreigners" (mainly Muslims). I can vouch for that - the number of times people have spouted crap about foreigners in front of me, only to look over and say "I don't mean you though..." is horrific. The claim is that racism is a gateway drug for Nazism, and that makes sense to me.

The study takes a psychological approach, relating the participants' past lives and how the subject of Nazis/Third Reich was tackled in their families to their statements and opinions in the discussions. I find precisely this aspect very interesting. It would seem that Germans are more likely to become Nazis if they don't talk about their family's history during the Third Reich. One phenomenon I've come across is family legends. Some families stylise good old grandad into a resistance fighter, even if all he ever did was mutter into his beer about the rationing. Of course that's much preferable to admitting that someone in the family played along with the system.

It must be much worse, though, to realise that grandad was an active Nazi. Aufbau Verlag published a collection of short stories by the "grandchild generation" that rather skirts around the issue, stadt land krieg, in 2004. The co-editor Verena Carl never quite manages to admit that her grandfather was a Nazi architect, for example, in one story. But Alexandra Senfft's book Schweigen tut weh seems to take a more offensive approach to her grandfather, who was executed as a Nazi war criminal in 1947. And Wibke Bruhns takes a sober looks at her father, one of the 20th July plotters who waited so long to try and topple Hitler, in My Father's Country. Naturally, the Times review opens with the sentence "The Nazis are coming back."

British Not Obsessed with Nazis?

Perhaps it's not just the Nazis that the British are obsessed with. Margaret Marks is a legal translator based in Fürth, South Germany, and writes very informatively at Transblawg. And she's picked up on a little exchange between the Journal for the Study of British Cultures and the TLS, here. Two German academics point out that the TLS is full of pieces about war, and the TLS admits that, yes, it's true. Not without displaying a little (tongue-in-cheek?) anti-German sentiment, mind you. So maybe my paranoia is unnecessary. It's not the Nazis they're obsessive about, it's the war, stupid!

Perhaps the Germans will do their image a favour and start a nice new war. That might distract people from Adolf & Co - but what shall we poor translators do then?

Wednesday 18 June 2008


Do you ever feel a sense of loss when you close a book? That you'll really miss even the characters you didn't like? That you'll never come to the book with the same sense of freshness as the first reading? That you might even prefer to just start all over again than to be not reading the book at all?

That's how I feel now I've finished Karen Duve's fantastic new novel, Taxi. It's bloody marvellous. What you have to know is that Duve worked as a taxi driver in Hamburg for 13 years. And that this is a novel about a young woman taxi driver in Hamburg. And that the book is so lovingly done that the actual hardback under the black paper cover is in the exact officially required shade of cream for German taxis (RAL 1015). You may notice I know a lot of odd facts about taxis. That's because I've read this book.

Before I continue, I have a personal admission to make. I have never been a taxi driver in Hamburg. But I did spend a couple of years as a courier in Berlin, which was not dissimilar. I recognised a lot of things - the way the narrator gets the job by batting her eyelids despite her lack of street knowledge, the way the men treat her as that rare creature: a woman, the way people in the job can only ever talk about work, the way the narrator ends up knowing almost only other people from work, the delights of getting jobs via walkie-talkie from a dispatcher who is almost always in a bad mood, the way people refer to each other by their numbers. My number was M-siebzehn. The main differences are that you can't really be a courier at night and that a lot of couriers talk about bikes for hours on end (yawn).

So I was kind of bound to love Taxi. But I'm not alone, and surely only a small percentage of critics have been taxi drivers, or indeed couriers, in the past. The narrator, Alex, is a likeable misanthrope who ends up driving a taxi for want of any other option. She prides herself in her good looks but ends up sleeping all day and driving all night, getting threatened and insulted and propositioned and beaten up by her customers. About every other short chapter is an anecdote about, erm, taxi driving - stingy customers, violent customers, high life, low life, old biddies, young lads, the worthwhile tours, the ultrashort tours, the ones that got away. Of course that reflects the narrator's state of mind - nothing much else exists outside of her work.
Duve pays an incredible amount of attention to detail, really sucking you in.

And then there's Alex's colleagues. She ends up in a dull, exploitative relationship with one of them, talks literature with others ("Reading Peter Altenberg was like swimming in front of a hotel sewage pipe."), getting put down on a daily basis by these incredible misogynists. I'd say I enjoyed reading the chats with her colleagues most of all - they transport a thoroughly pessimistic world view that I wouldn't like to share, but which is very entertaining in a perverse way. Disabled parking spaces are an evil invention, customers should be responsible for good service, socialism is incompatible with primates. Oh, those primates. Alex has her own philosophy, with everyone grouped according to gorilla criteria. It works for her, up to a point.

The plot? Normally I'm big on plot, but here it's kind of secondary. It's there all right, but it's not world-moving. Alex descends into depression, skipping between lovers, the odd thing or two happens to the other taxi drivers and the company, and in the end she's released from her incredible lethargy by an unexpected event. I must say, we couriers were a soap opera in comparison (especially when one of the guys married a nurse and all her workmates got designs on his colleagues). But somehow, I really don't mind that. The book works really well without a mind-blowing plot - the characters are so exaggeratedly drawn that that's enough. I just wanted to read more and more, to find out whether Rüdiger got that proper job or not, whether Udo managed to save the company or not, whether Alex ever managed to finish with Dieter and sort her life out or not.

As far as I'm aware, Duve's first two novels Rain and This is Not a Love Song are available in English, but not her third, The Kidnapped Princess. I haven't read any of them but am thinking of correcting that error toot-sweet. And I think this is a prime candidate for translation too. The only obstacle is that the book is very firmly set in Hamburg. And being about taxi drivers, there are a hell of a lot of street names in it. Perhaps a clever publisher could insert street maps at strategic intervals, Lord of the Rings-style, or maybe put a map of Hamburg on the cover. I can't say it bothered me; I like a bit of local colour, but then I've been to Hamburg a couple of times. So snap it up, clever publishers - before some other passenger jumps the queue and chugs off into the sunset.

But be warned - once you've read this book you will never engage in a friendly chat with a taxi driver ever again. You should have seen the one the day before yesterday...

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Georg Büchner Prize for Josef Winkler

According to the Kurier newspaper, the Austrian author Josef Winkler has been awarded the most prestigious literary prize for German-language writers, the Georg Büchner Prize. See also an English-language report in The Local. I'm very pleased for him - I've met him briefly and have translated a piece he wrote, although not for publication. I can say he's a very talented and courteous man.

He writes rather dark, compelling fiction centering on his bleak rural childhood, oppressive Catholicism, homosexuality and an overbearing father-figure. Oh, and death too. So pretty Austrian, then. But he has also looked at Rome and India, including cremation rituals and globalisation themes. And you can read his novel The Serf, translated by Michael Mitchell, in English. Ariadne Books also offer his essay Flowers for Jean Genet, translated by Michael Roloff.


Monday 16 June 2008


I love that word. Wolfenbüttel. You'd think it means something like "wolf's bailiff" - but apparently no - it derives from Wulferis Buttle and means Wulferi's place. But the VdÜ made it translators' place this past weekend. Ahem.

First off, in case you were wondering, I mastered the first rung on my career as a DJ (or DJane, as the Germans rather quaintly call female disc jockeys). We raised the temperature with bangin oldie choons and had everyone under 95 dancing for hours on end until the barman begged us to stop - he wanted to go home. Then the last stragglers walked back to our hotels through the park in the early hours, encountering marauding youths who commented, "Hey look, old people go on midnight hikes too!" We smirked and didn't tell them what they'd missed. A cock crowed round the back of the castle just before we reached our beds - I kid you not. We may now be forced at gunpoint to repeat our shift on the wheels of steel at the next get-together. Actually I wouldn't mind - it was great fun, and as befits a translator, I was able to hide behind someone else's art, enthusing the masses by mixing and matching, interpreting and segueing. But I was dancing along the whole time in our dark little corner.

But apart from the, er, dancing, there were three highlights for me. The first was a talk by Hartmut Fähndrich, an Arabic-German translator, on the neglected cultural importance of translations from Arabic to Latin in the Middle Ages - and who actually did most of the work! The last was a discussion with the author Judith Hermann and her translators Natalia Sniadanko (Ukrainian) and Marisa Presas (Spanish).

In between the two came the now traditional readings night. In among the serious business was a section entitled Kitsch as kitsch can. And it was unlike anything I've ever heard at a literary event. In fact I couldn't help thinking that it almost summed up the differences between Britain and Germany when it comes to translations. Because (as the name might suggest), it was dedicated to kitsch in translation. I only caught the second half, but that was a riot. Tanja Handels read from her forthcoming German version of Elizabeth Edmonson's The Art of Love - all wide-eyed views of Paris - and Nadine Mutz read from this book. The publishers say:

To protect Lady Anne from her devious husband Edward, her father hides her with the infamous highwayman John, who owes him a favour. The sparks soon start to fly between the two of them. But then Edward discovers the plot.

The passage Nadine read had us rolling in the aisles. Lady Anne had been led to believe that John had been robbed of his manhood as punishment for some dastardly deed or other. But then she encountered him while bathing in a river and learned the truth about his "firm pulsating lance". It was obvious that Nadine really savoured the reading, and that she'd approached the translation with the same sense of fun - but had provided a genuinely good reproduction of the genre. All the ingredients were there, the silly faux-Medieval vocabulary, the simple sentence structure, the - well - glorious kitsch.

Can you imagine this efficient romantic fiction ever being translated into English? Of course not. But German publishers translate a great deal of this stuff. I've no idea how well they pay - presumably slightly better than Ukrainian publishers - but there's a huge market for Mills & Boon-type literature. And why reinvent the wheel when you can get the English stuff translated?

You could argue that this prevents German-language authors from getting their foot in the door of romantic fiction, but I think there's scope for them too - I recently found a little taster from a romance set in Hamburg inside a trashy magazine. There seemed to be lots of fish-eating and clubbing going on in it.

Now I'm sure not every translator approaches such a book with Nadine's obvious elan, but there are plenty of people out there in Germany earning a living from this stuff. Whereas the UK/US market only provides a livelihood for a handful of full-time translators. I know that's not going to change drastically in the near future - but wouldn't it be nice if we got to see genre fiction - other than crime of course - from other countries? Vampires in Venice, romance in Riyadh, horror in Hamburg. I think that would open people's eyes to other cultures, as we philistines like to hope, much more than occasional pre-war novels that only 500 people read. Not to mention a little more quality contemporary writing...

Denis Scheck's Best of Contemporary German Books

Following up on the piece about the Helen & Kurt Wolff Symposium, Three Percent has now reproduced Denis Scheck's recommendations for contemporary German books.

It's a very impressive list, with two of my favourites on it - Karen Duve's Taxi and Feridun Zaimoglu's Leyla. He also tips his hat at two books from the Piper Gebrauchsanweisungen series - sort of travel guides written by established authors. I used to have the Berlin one by Jakob Hein but was stuck for a birthday present at the last moment, but the London one by Ronald* Reng is right here on my desk.

I don't share his enthusiasm for Marcel Beyer's Kaltenburg or for Zaimoglu's latest, Liebesbrand. But he apparently said that what ends up in English translation doesn't reflect contemporary German literature - and I'm with him all the way there. What with all the translations of writing from the first half of the twentieth century and earlier that seem to come out in English, the awards-led selection of titles and the whole Wetlands statistical distortion, one might think the only thing that interests German-language writers nowadays is prize money and piles.

Interestingly, one of his tips is Arno Geiger's Es geht uns gut, the first winner of the German Book Prize in 2005. At first I thought, what's he going on about? That must be available in translation by now! But no - unlike the other winners and many of the shortlisted titles since, this book hasn't found its way into English yet. I'm astounded, but perhaps all the fuss about Austrian culture will help push this novel (I haven't read it), which Daniela Strigl describes as "both the secretly longed-for novel of postwar Austria and at the same time the story of a family." Good luck to it.

*Compare this photo with any of Kevin Vennemann - whose novel Close to Jedenew has just come out in Ross Benjamin's translation - to see how my taste in good-looking authors differs from HJ's... Except the haircut. But maybe it's just the tattoo.

Doris Kilias

Friday's Berliner Zeitung contains a very moving obituary for the Arabic-German translator Doris Kilias, written by her daughter, the writer Jenny Erpenbeck. It closes:

While she sat in her very quiet Berlin room, she lived in the alleys of Old Cairo, lived in Bedouin tents, in Algiers or Riyadh - lived in her books. And it annoyed her again and again when reviews praised the language of the authors she translated without naming her: Do they think he writes in German?! As a translator, she led a shadowy existence. She slipped into the writer's thoughts, took a step back behind the author's name, and yet she gave her passion, her experience of life, her own personal language for that of the other. If someone asked her what was the best thing about translating, she would answer: being someone else for a while.

Friday 13 June 2008

Read this Article

I'm off to the delights of Wolfenbüttel right now, but while I'm away, please do read this article on Three Percent. It's about promoting and funding translations from German, as Chad Post attended the Helen and Kurt Wolff Symposium where David Dollenmayer won the prize. Lots to think about.

Thursday 12 June 2008

Adventures in Translatorland

Having slagged off literary DJs in an earlier post, I'm now preparing to try my own hand at the art of making people dance. For it is that time of year when Germany's literary translators get together to brush up their tap-dancing, research coral reefs, polish their participles and drink wine. Yes, it's the VdÜ's annual Wolfenbütteler Gespräch (which is German for having a natter in a picturesque small town).

And aside from all the proper highlights - such as readings, workshops, awards ceremonies, tours, gymnastics, wine - there is a disco. Now if you're not a translator, you may find it difficult to imagine a room full of us grooving the night away to sweet tunes from the sound system. In fact, I am a translator and I too found it difficult to imagine before I saw it with my own eyes. But it seems to have become a very popular annual ritual. We all park our zimmer frames on the edge of the dancefloor and shake our tailfeathers in the delightful surroundings of Wolfenbüttel's premier nightspot. There have been unconfirmed observations of flirtatious activities as the evening grows older, but that rumour about the Wolfenbüttel love-child resulting from an orgy in the lades lav in 2004 is entirely made up.

Anyway, I allowed myself to be pressganged into playing the selecta for the night, along with my revered colleague Mr Steph Morris (BSc, MA, LLB, DipDJ, order of the royal garter). I will be encouraging him to wear the trousers in the photo for the occasion. We get free drinks all night for our trouble, plus a gold-engraved first edition of Feuchtgebiete. Each.

But seriously, if you are a translator from German* and looking for an opportunity to practice your German and take part in workshops, readings, awards ceremonies, gymnastics, wine drinking, etc., you might consider booking in - obviously not until next year though. The weekend is very cheap, with low prices for accommodation and a good few meals included in the fee. Plus you'll meet all sorts of exciting colleagues and get to put your back out on the dance floor. What more could you ask?

*It's actually aimed at translators into German, seeing as that's who makes up the main body of the organisation, but there are always a few of us "other-way-arounders" there too. Heh heh.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Heine in the Bronx, Nabokov in the Doghouse

David, a Reader of My Blog, pointed out an article in today's New York Times reviewing a new Heine translation. Oh happy day. It's an affectionate look at Travel Pictures, translated by Peter Wortsman. And apparently, Heine has his very own presence in New York:

After his death, a statue of Heine was offered to Düsseldorf. Nationalist sentiment caused it to be rejected. German-Americans then donated it to New York to be placed by Central Park. It was pronounced aesthetically inferior (this has always been a hard place to crack the art scene), and it stands now in the Bronx.

There's now no shortage of Heine statues in Germany, the country that once kept him awake at night.

Oh, and Nicholas Lezard talks about Ernst Weiss' Franziska in Anthea Bell's translation in last Saturday's Guardian. I don't know it, but Lezard rather likes it. He closes the piece:

As for the translation, Nabokov once remarked that a translator had to be (a) good at the language being translated from, (b) extremely good at the language being translated into, and (c) a man. Anthea Bell's entire career, and this translation no less, show that as far as point (c) goes, Nabokov was talking rubbish.

Compare and Contrast: Austrian Literature

It's quite interesting to see how insiders view their own national literatures in comparison to the "foreign" take. So why not read Daniela Strigl's very thorough look at contemporary Austrian literature in Eurozine - and then Ritchie Robertson's recent piece in the Times Literary Supplement, playing on the Fritzl theme in the country's literature.

Interestingly, both articles round off with Elfriede Jelinek - there's just no escaping her right now - but that's about all they have in common. I prefer the Eurozine one, although it has a rather harping anti-German tone. Certainly, comparing the two provides ammunition for my argument that English-speakers are obsessed with the "dark history" aspect of German-language writing, whereas German-speakers have other themes to look at - although they don't ignore their national histories, by any means.

Strigl is adamant that Austrian literature can stand its own against German writers - but then practically accuses the German Book Prize judges of rigging the shortlist against Austrians in 2006. Bizarre. Although it might sound odd from someone who defines herself as "loving German books", I do feel that all this competition is unnecessary. What I refer to as "German books" are actually books written in the German language. I rarely take an interest in the nationality of the writer unless it's relevant for their work. And just as "English books" include books written in India, Wales, Hawaii and New Zealand, there are people writing "German books" in all sorts of places and with all sorts of backgrounds. So what does it matter how many authors on the longlists and shortlists of this world were born in Austria?


I'm just gearing up to start reading Karin Duve's Taxi - sorry, can't find any English info yet - and am really looking forward to it. It's a novel about a woman taxi driver. You can hear a little reading from the book on the Eichborn website (click on the "play" triangle below the photo - shame about the awful fake Berlinerisch).

But for the time being, take a look at this gorgeous website - Apparently, Berlin is the sixth best city in the world for taxis - whatever that means. I'm certainly a big Berlin taxi fan, and now you can see Berlin's taxi drivers reading from their favourite books. I rather like the Martin Suter story, especially the guy's slight Berlin accent as he reads it - with visible enjoyment.

The whole site is a little gem, actually, building up a library of people reading from books they love. They post new films once a week, sometimes on a particular literary theme and sometimes featuring a particular group of people. I can feel a plan germinating here...

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Translating Jelinek

Much has been made of Nicholas Spice's favourable article on Elfriede Jelinek in the London Review of Books. It is very much worth taking the time to read, very well informed and interesting. But people seem to have picked up on what is little more than an aside, Spice's criticism of Martin Chalmers' translation of Gier/Greed. In fact, Spice goes into barely any detail, condemning the translation without naming a single flaw by name - just as he fails to name the translator, perhaps out of a false sense of politeness.

If you're actually interested in the art of translating Jelinek, take a look at the website of the Elfriede Jelinek Research Centre at the University of Vienna. The site features essays in German by eight of the author's translators, including the irrepressible Lilian Friedberg, who has translated several of Jelinek's plays into American English. In fact, you can access several English translations (although none by Martin Chalmers) via Jelinek's own site (scroll down to 2007 and 2008 on the left). But remember - no quoting! Elfriede doesn't approve...

Saturday 7 June 2008

Robert Walser Fever

For those who prefer more intellectual pursuits than trying to follow sports they understand nothing about, you could do worse than join in the debate on Robert Walser's The Assistant at the Words Without Borders book club. Lots and lots of lovely resources, expert commentary from Sam "Golden Rule" Jones, the book's translator Susan Bernofsky, Tom Whalen, Damion Searls, Tamara Evans, Mark Harman, Millay Hyatt, Jonathon Taylor, Bernhard Echte, Peter Utz, James Tweedie and others.

I'm off to the seaside instead.

Friday 6 June 2008

EURO 2008

I am reliably informed that some large international football tournament starts this weekend. No British teams are in it, which causes a quandary. Usually, I just support England because that's what everyone expects me to do and it means we can have a bit of a domestic on the sofa when England plays Germany. It usually ends in tears, though, and I have to remind my young man of 1966 in order to retain a shred of self-respect.

But this year, as I said, things are a bit more difficult. But I note that the Polish press has taken on the time-honoured role of harking back to WWII to encourage the lads to beat the rotten Hun. Usually, of course, that's the domain of the British papers, but this year they've gone strangely quiet.

So in honour of all the Polish people living in my part of London, and of the fact that I had an imaginary friend called Macek as a child, and of the fact that I once tried to learn Polish and failed dismally, and of the fact that it will really wind all my German mates up, I have decided to support Poland. Plus they have quite a nice flag, and I happen to own clothes in their national colours.*

See also Markus Hesselmann, our man in London, and the Guardian's European Beer Championship.

* I was once dragged along to a public viewing of a football match between Brazil and Denmark, wearing a red and white shirt by pure chance. Denmark lost and lots of Brazil fans patted me generously on the back in commiseration. I didn't realise why until some time later.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Baut Auf

If you're in Germany or follow this type of thing, you'll have noticed that the only major East German publishing house to have survived the fall of the Wall is now in trouble. Aufbau Verlag is more than a relic of the GDR, though. It was founded in August 1945, when Germany was struggling to find paper to print books on, in a spirit of constructing a new literary Germany - hence the name Aufbau, meaning "building up, rebuilding". And it became a home to many authors who returned to the East of Germany from exile - Anna Seghers, Egon Erwin Kisch, Arnold Zweig... But it has developed a very strong profile as one of the largest and most respected independent publishing houses in Germany today.

I won't go into great detail, but basically the managers and the owner have parted company. The owner withdrew his funding and told them to register the company bankrupt after a complicated legal case, as an outcome of which he now nominally owns all the rights originating prior to 1991, and the publishing house owns all the rights from after that date. So the owner claims Aufbau itself is now an "empty shell". The managers and staff see that very differently, as the major part of the company's income now comes from newer titles rather than the old backlist. I've worked with Aufbau before and found it a thoroughly positive experience. And they're continuing their operations, as a lawyer's letter informed me today,* so I hope to work with them again in future. Because the staff are hanging on for dear life, fighting to save the publishing house they hold dear.

There's a wonderfully vitriolic article explaining the events by the pre-1991 head of Aufbau, Elmar Faber, in Neues Deutschland. And you can read the current managing director's angry and upset open letter to the owner on the Aufbau website, linked above. He likens the situation to Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, hoping that "what there is shall belong to those who are good for it."

So if you want to do your bit to save them, why not buy an Aufbau book - right now? How about a bit of French crime from Fred Vargas? Or some Socialist realism with that little bit extra from Werner Bräunig (rights acquired after 91)? Rush to get hold of Andreas Gläser's second long-player, DJ Baufresse. A bit of historical ham soon to be a major film - die Päpstin? I love this beautifully illustrated biography of Anna Seghers. Not to forget anything by Selim Özdogan. Or one of their beautiful children's books... The choice is nigh-on endless.

*They misspelt my name in an entirely novel way. I was most impressed.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone

I just noticed Anthea Bell's translation of Saša Stanišic's Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert is due out any day now. Stewart at the World Literature Forum doesn't like it, but acknowledges it "seems tipped to be this year's translation success." So I thought I'd add a little more to what I bravely wrote in response.

First off, although I have friends and acquaintances from various former Yugoslavian states, my entire "knowledge" of the culture is based on Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday and Kurt Held's book Die Rote Zora. Incidentally, this is an absolute classic German children's book, written by a disillusioned Communist in Swiss exile and published under a pseudonym in 1941. It seems to have been published in English back in 1967 under the title The Outsiders of Uskoken Castle, translated by Lynn Aubrey. Time for a rediscovery, I feel, especially after the gorgeous film recently made of it. Bloomsbury, could Zora be the new Harry Potter?

But back to the soldier and the gramophone. Now I haven't read the translation, obviously, but I thoroughly enjoyed the original. I even enjoyed the meandering titles that got Stewart's goat - and which Ross Benjamin describes in Bookforum as "playfully mimic(ing) Cervantes and Grimmelshausen by providing brief, tantalizingly eccentric synopses: 'How long a heart attack takes over a hundred meters, how heavy a spider’s life weighs, why a sad man writes to the cruel river, and what magic the comrade-in-chief of the unfinished can work.'" In fact, at the end of each chapter I went back and checked if everything was included. Sometimes it isn't - deliberately.

The first half or so is a fairly straight-forward tale of a boy of unspecified age growing up in pre-war Yugoslavia. Here, it's the language that carries the novel - whimsical non-collocations and lists half a page long, no quotation marks but rapidly changing perspectives, stories upon stories. And the critics that don't like it say it's Balkan kitsch. They might be right - the rural summer party with a table groaning with hearty food and slivovitz, the enraged husbands, the speeches at grandad's funeral. You can often hear the accordeons in your minds ear - and in fact there is an actual band playing brass instruments every now and then. But the narrator Aleksandar Krsmanovic - a thinly veiled Saša himself - is a born storyteller, packaging all the everyday dramas into melodramas, adding just that little bit of technicolour to life.

And then comes the war. For Aleksandar, the war is a bit like a Kammerspiel - it takes place in a single setting, the cellar and corridors of his housing block. The soldiers arrive - sitting down at the impromptu communal dining table and asking what's for tea. The horror is never spoken out loud, we leave the room or close our eyes along with the narrator every time something bad threatens to happen. He protects a Muslim girl from the countryside seeking shelter in the building, then wanders the empty streets with his best friend and forgets about her again. As events reach a crescendo, the family packs up and leaves - a sudden interruption that divides the book into two.

The second part has another contents page, a very different style, and is almost a book about the book. This is where you realise that Stanišic studied creative writing on the renowned Leipzig University course - which has been churning out well-read young writers for a few years now. He didn't graduate, incidentally - too busy being a feted literary starlet. This is where the narrator, or Stanišic himself, grows up. In this section, Yugoslavia is no longer the paradise of the first half, peopled by smocked Titoists and emotional drunks. Whereas the harbingers of war were almost too subtle to notice before, now they are everywhere. We see the real events, no longer swathed in kitsch - or do we? Because Aleksandar is still the inveterate storyteller - only now, instead of his magic wand that makes everything better, "someone should invent an honest plane, which can rasp off the lies from the stories and the delusions from the memories. I am a collector of shavings."

Aleksandar returns to Bosnia from Germany, visiting his grandmother and his old home town. He searches for the little Muslim girl, but is she real or just a device in a plotline? In this second half, Stanisic really plays with his readers, picking up on countless tiny details from the first part, describing various possible realities, turning facts on their heads - the one that got away, the football match between the lines. The humour turns from light to dark, the characters from glittering to down-to-earth. Whereas before, I gladly suspended my disbelief, now that disbelief is the whole point. It felt like I had gone back to Bosnia with Aleksandar and been just as shocked by all the things I had refused to see beforehand. That, I think, is one of the great strengths of the book.

And although the structure of the second half could be tighter, I really think the book deserves to be a hit in English, as it has in German. As long as people can get past the Balkan kitsch.

Update: I finally found the outcome to that little cultural misunderstanding in Summer Holiday. Now that's Balkan kitsch.

GBO Rights List

The New York German Book Office has revamped its website - but I still don't find it all that user-friendly, I'm sorry to say. The best thing to do is fiddle around until you get to the pdf Fiction Rights List for Spring 2008 - which is a thing of beauty. Not just the whole presentation - it's a gorgeous shade of regal purple - the titles on the list look great too. There's Clemens Meyer, Ulrich Pelzer, Sherko Fatah and more. Plus mentions of Marcel Beyer's Kaltenburg, which I'm reading right now, and Karen Duve's Taxi, which I'll be picking up from the bookshop this afternoon. Schmakofatzki.

And Chad Post at Three Percent (why do people write "over at Other Blog X"? Is it to indicate that they're all big buddies who live round the corner from each other in the virtual hood? I'll try to avoid it in future) writes about a panel discussion with the Grand Fromage of the GBO, Riky Stock - on funding translation. Because this is something the GBO does too, and rather well, it would seem. Post writes:

One of the things that everyone seemed to agree on was that the next logical step in cultural funding was to help market these titles rather than simply paying for the translation. It’s important to get money to offset translation costs—that’s a huge additional cost and without subsidies I suspect a lot of translators would be paid an embarrassingly tiny amount for their work—but helping cultivate an audience for these works will pay off big in the long run.

Of course helping to promote books in translation is something English PEN, at least, already does. Five books a year may be a drop in the ocean, but it's a great start. One of them is Saša Stanišić's How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. More on that later...

Monday 2 June 2008

Wetlands Conquers the UK

Just in case you hadn't noticed, British publishers Fourth Estate have bought Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete for "a decent sum". I'll bet. Thanks to Bowlserised for pointing it out.