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...

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