Friday 18 July 2008

Summer Holiday

I'm off tomorrow. Don't miss me too much, as I'll be back in two weeks.

That List... and Advice for Neophyte Literary Translators

Top US translation person Esther Allen has added her take on the UK Translators' Association list of fifty outstanding translations at the Guardian's book blog. She's not the first person to comment on this list by far, so I'd say it's certainly achieved the aim of provoking debate.

My favourite bit in Allen's piece is this:

The British list of top translations includes many, many American names, some of them overwhelming me with nostalgia: (...) the astonishingly polyglot Michael Henry Heim, whose enormous talent and generosity has inspired generation after generation...

I'm with her all the way there - Michael Henry Heim once sent insignificant little me a wonderful little document entitled "Advice to neophyte literary translators". And I am hugely impressed by what I've read of his translations. For more advice, neophyte literary translators could also look at the "Translators' Tips" at no man's land.

Bribery or Subsidy?

Remember that forthcoming collection of extracts from the German Book Prize longlist I mentioned? Well it turns out they asked the German publishers to pay a "voluntary" contribution towards the printing costs - but only if their book ended up on the longlist. Begging the question, of course, of what they would have done if anyone refused to pay.

But the publishers kicked up a stink - and rightly too - and now the organisation behind the Book Prize has decided to scrap that print costs subsidy. The book will be free in selected bookshops (which do have to pay...).

In Other Words

Estelle Gilson has written an interesting piece for the Boston Globe on the art of literary translation, focusing on "that easy Italian pun, 'traduttore/traditore,' by which the world knows us. Toss the term into Google and it turns up a website that declares: 'Translator, you're a traitor!'" Interestingly, she points out that War and Peace has been translated into English 12 times over the past 140 years.

Translators in Germany, at least, can get a bit touchy about these re-translations. They argue that nobody re-writes Goethe, so why is it general consensus that translations "age" and become dated? I suspect a secret desire to render oneself immortal with a "definitive" translation of a certain work might be behind this argument. But whatever the reason, I think it's wrong. Because firstly, as Estelle points out, writers, directors and dramatists do of course re-jig Mozart, Shakespeare and Dante all the time. And secondly, as she also says, there can be no perfect translation.

She also touches on the way our expectations of literary translation have changed over the years, using the example of Constance Garnett. Nowadays, no one but the most romantic soul would expect a literary translator to work among the buzzing of bees in a beautiful garden, as D.H. Lawrence leads us to believe Garnett did. Nor would we expect translators to skip parts, clean up the dialogue or smooth texts over. But this was all standard practice until fairly recently - the first German translations of Shakespeare by Schlegel and Tieck being prime examples. Yet these Romantic and Victorian translations remain the only quotable versions we have, as they were "good enough" to establish Shakespeare, Tolstoy and many others outside their own languages.

Now, of course, literary translators are true professionals with years of training and experience, working under the pressure of market conditions but with the advantages that technology offers us. We can research at the touch of a button or simply ask a range of native speakers around the world if we come across something we don't understand. If we are puzzled by an architectural description or a botanical detail, we can call up a photo to help us get to grips with it. We have excellent dictionaries for many languages and if we are re-translating, we also have the benefit of being able to look at how those before us have dealt with the text. So it's three cheers for modern life from me - and I even know one translator who genuinely does work in his garden, albeit on a laptop with wireless LAN.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Julia Franck, Anthea Bell and the Silly Season

The school holidays have started in Berlin, officially ringing in the silly season - or the "summer hole" as German-spakers call it. I rather like the idea of us all falling into some gaping chasm entirely free from news and culture as the summer unfolds. In fact, a lot of the papers in Germany (and the UK) are recommending light summer reading, but the Tagesspiegel has gone against the grain with its seasonal lit-supplement Alpha. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be available online.

But never mind. Along with a profile of Cees Noteboom and six beautifully illustrated pages of international crime writing tips, they've run a piece by last year's German Book Prize winner Julia Franck. Entitled My Life as a Nomad, the essay basically lists all the different places in Berlin where Franck has lived since she was born and explains how she came to be there and what they were like. She certainly has moved around a lot. What struck me was how open and apparently honest and revealing she is.

Particularly at the beginning, a picture shines through between the lines of a busy mother who had little time for her children - yet Franck never accuses her mother of treating her and her sisters badly. These were different times, after all - Franck is originally from East Germany, where working mothers were the norm and children's homes flourished. And it would be all too easy to join the chorus of "bad mother" cries that some Germans like to launch into at every opportunity - perhaps a legacy from the days of the Mother's Cross and certainly the bane of many working mothers' lives here. In Franck's writing, mothers don't tend to come off too well - particularly in Die Mittagsfrau, where there are two mothers who don't fit into the roles society allots them. The novel looks for explanations, although not exonerations, for these womens' behaviour, and is a fascinating read. The Alpha piece should be available online in a longer version (plus audio) at Literaturport from 24 July.

By the way, a couple of regional papers have also reported on a fasinating seminar that's just taken place at the EUK in Straelen (watch out for the crude national stereotyping in that linked article though - "schmachtet der Bulgare" - good God). Franck met up with eighteen translators working on the book. One of whom, of course, is my idol Anthea Bell. It looks like the English title will be The Blind Side of the Heart, rather than the carefully researched Lady Midday (sigh). I can't help thinking it sounds slightly Barbara Cartland-ish, but at least people will understand what it means. Apparently even German readers have trouble with the title, which refers to a mythical Sorbian lady in white. And at least they rejected The Lunch Lady.

Unfortunately, none of the articles go into great detail, presumably because the journalists didn't spend three days following the conversation. So I'm feeling all hard done-by and miserable now. I'd love to hear from anyone who attended the reading at the local high school though...

Friday 11 July 2008

Wetlands on Stage

A brief virtual flick through Bild (not a newspaper, it's official) shows three new "stories" about their favourite bugbear, Charlotte Roche's Wetlands. First off, it's going to be adapted for the stage in Halle. The director is quoted: "If it's sex you're after don't go to the theatre. You're better off having it at home." A wise woman. I'd adapt that slightly to "If it's novels you're after..." after seeing a very dull adaptation of Raul Zelik's Berliner Verhältnisse on stage. At one point I amused myself by pulling faces at the actors.

Next, readers have voted for who could play the leading role. I don't know who the "scandal noodle" is who won this dubious honour, though.

And finally, Roger Willemsen has slagged Charlotte Roche off - apparently. The author, whose book An Afghan Journey comes out in paperback in September (trans. Stefan Tobler), calls Wetlands "the most disgusting book by a long way" that he knows. He doesn't find it erotic at all.

I suspect Bild might be twisting the guy's words ever so slightly, not that they'd do that kind of thing on purpose, of course. Why do I think this? Well, it's just the small fact that Willemsen is quoted on the back of the actual book in question. Here's what he says:

Radical, drastic and just as tender. I can't recall having a debut manuscript in my hands as self-assured, as courageous and as full of the present day as this.

Someone is getting a wee bit muddled, I suspect.

Trojanow Again

Speak of the devil... that Ilija Trojanow gets everywhere these days. The really rather excellent Booktrust translated fiction website now has an interview with him online, conducted by the site's editor James Smith. Asked why he thinks British readers are, ahem, slow to catch onto foreign-language writing, he gives the perfect answer:

The polite answer would be: as with the cuisine it takes time to discover and cherish the marvels of the diverse. And the impolite: a postcolonial mindset that still harbours illusions of grandeur and superiority. But then again, without the imported literatures within the English language, there wouldn’t be that much of a British literature to talk about. Forgive me, AL Kennedy!

You tell 'em, Ilija! (or Iliya, as he now seems to be transliterated)

Thursday 10 July 2008

Ilija Trojanow and Wolfram von Eschenbach

Tuesday's taz features a gorgeous little piece by Ilija Trojanow, on a scene in Parzifal where two cultures meet. A knight comes across a noble heathen in a forest clearing, they fight, the knight's sword breaks and the heathen lays down his arms. The two sit down together and talk, whereupon it comes to light that they are brothers. The heathen, being the offspring of a white man and a black woman, is spotted black and white.

Now back in the not quite so distant past, I myself read this scene. Being an arrogant product of the twentieth century (and only about 20 at the time), I assumed that this was just medieval ignorance - ha ha, they didn't know back then what mixed-race kids look like. But no, Trojanow points out, Wolfram von Eschenbach was actually paying his respect to the Arab culture, alluding to its wisdom and conveying a picture of an individual who has taken on the best aspects of both worlds. What he realised, Trojanow says, is that what separates us is only a momentary difference - "the other" only becomes obvious when two cultures fight. "The only way I can tell the heathen from the Christian," Trojanow interprets Wolfram, "is that they approach each other as enemies."

Trojanow goes from the specific to the general, and then back to fine details. The music of the African slaves in North America, he writes, has subversively conquered white high culture out of the plantations and ghettos. Which took me to Trojanow's book Kampfabsage. Originally written (but apparently not published) in English together with one of his translators, the Indian poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskoté, the book calls for a new understanding of European history. I've only just started reading it, but it seems very good so far - a rallying battle cry against the myth of the "clash of the civilizations" and a long overdue reminder of just how many different influences have flown into modern Europe as we understand it.

I'm just hoping that his truly excellent Burton-inspired novel on a smiliar theme, The Collector of Worlds, released last month in the UK by Faber & Faber and translated by William Hobson, will be a hit and pave the way for Kampabsage. After all, as it was originally written in English that means no extra costs for translation.

Watch Out for 18 New Translations

The first round of grants have been awarded as part of a programme to fund translations of academic texts from German to English. The idea, according to the press release, is to help publicise humanities research taking place in Germany and to preserve German as a language for academic publication.

So you can look forward to reading titles such as Lady of the Hill. The Life of Cosima Wagner, Encyclopedia of World War I, or Rechtsbildung im wirtschaftlichen 'Weltverkehr' - Das Erdbeben von San Francisco und die internationale Standardisierung von Vertragsbedingungen (1871-1914) - which I'm just not going to translate, OK?

Interestingly enough, I notice that one of the "independent judges" was Detlef Felken, editor at the revered publishing house C.H. Beck. And if you look at the list of titles awarded translation grants, you'll see that four of them came from under that very roof. Ein Schelm, wer Böses denkt. Only a relatively small number of books were submitted, so let's hope more German publishers catch on to this fund in the future.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

They Seem to Like It, Saša

That impish* writer Saša Stanišić has posted a long list of glowing reviews of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone on his website. Things like "brilliantly cockeyed prose," "rich with experience and imagination," "an astonishing accomplishment." Most of them are from the USA, with one each from Canada and the UK (from the Guardian), although that may be because they were collected by his US publisher, Grove Atlantic. Or because Stanišić went on a brief tour of the States in June and has yet to hit Britain - he'll be in Edinburgh on the 9th of August though.

None of the review extracts mention the novel's translator, Anthea Bell, although many of them refer to Stanišić's use of language. The Guardian review does at least credit Bell prominently, unlike the publisher's website. The translator Ross Benjamin also comments briefly on the quality of Bell's work in his Bookforum review. I'm far too lazy to look up all the other reviews in full, so I'll just assume that Bell's name doesn't feature in them - which would be standard practice in reviewing translated fiction, with notable exceptions.

I find this rather worrying. Anthea Bell is the closest the UK has to a "well-known translator" - she even has her own Wikipedia entry, for goodness sake. Yet hardly anybody seems to find it worth mentioning that such a venerated person has worked on the book; almost an honour in itself if you ask me.

A couple of years ago, a group of British translators took it upon themselves to gently remind newspaper reviewers that books don't get put into English automatically - there is a person involved and their work is an artistic process. That did produce results of a kind, with most of the UK papers now at least crediting the translator in the review heading. During the campaign itself, they also managed to rustle up the odd sentence about the quality of the translation, although that would seem to be slipping again.

Perhaps reviewers don't feel qualified to judge the quality of translations, especially as few of them will be able to compare with the original, or indeed have the time to do so. American PEN has a very useful guide tucked away on its website that should offer some support in that case. If only reviewers would read it. And if only more publishers would make things that little bit easier for them by providing the information they need.

*I think "impish" is the perfect word to describe Saša Stanišić. In person, he sometimes exudes a real sense of boyish glee that makes you think he'd never experienced anything negative in his whole life. In fact I thought it was my own description, but then I noticed it in the Los Angeles Times review. So I assume Donna Seaman has also seen him close up...

Tuesday 8 July 2008

A Book You Can't Buy (Yet)

This looks exciting: an 80-page book featuring extracts from all 20 books longlisted for this year's German Book Prize. Plus details on the authors and an interview with last year's winner, Julia Franck.

Except they're not announcing the longlist until 20 August, and you can only pre-order a minimum of 25 copies. So we'll all just have to twiddle our thumbs for a while longer.

I know a lot of people disapprove of the German Book Prize. I think the argument is that it highlights commercially viable books and rewards un-adventurous writing (particularly novels with historical subject matter). But its expressed goal is "to draw attention beyond national borders to authors writing in German, to reading and to the keynote medium of the book." And that is now working, people. Plus there are enough terribly serious, highly respected, utterly highbrow literary awards in the German-speaking world to well and truly cover that side of things.

If you ask me, the fact that foreign publishers now snap up the shortlisted books like eighties revivalists descending on fluorescent ra-ra skirts at a second-hand shop actually opens doors for other, slightly more experimental writers. Maybe not in huge numbers right now, but I predict a riot of new German writing hitting the UK/US in the next five years or so, if the people behind it manage to pursue an aggressive foot-in-the-door strategy. Just don't quote me on that.

Last night I dreamed I'd written a bad fantasy novel and gave a reading, which only about three very critical critics attended. They asked probing questions, to which I could only respond with twee answers ("It's not entirely free from kitsch, no..."). It was all rather upsetting, even though the moderator (an actual person but I won't name them for fear of embarrassing them) did their very best, despite their own obvious contempt for my bad fantasy novel. Is there something I should read out of this, perhaps?

Friday 4 July 2008

Nachglühen Revisited

I read Jan Böttcher's Nachglühen a little while ago and was incredibly impressed. So when I saw he was reading round the corner from me, I managed to forgo the sofa for one night and actually leave the house.

Unfortunately, it was the hottest day of the year here yesterday, and almost everyone else in Berlin had better things to do than go to a reading. So the atmosphere was strangely intimate, with just a huddle of people gathered under the whirling fans in the Brecht-Haus. But it's a lovely venue in the building where Brecht once lived, with an Austrian restaurant in the cellar. Incidentally, I used to know the trainee chef there, and he told me it was a late-night hangout for the pimps from nearby Oranienburger Straße, at least at the time. What would BB have said to that, I wonder?

There were no obvious pimps in the audience last night, though, only a bit of a know-it-all on the subject of Lower Saxony. Jan Böttcher played two of his folk-y songs that I still don't like much, and read two extracts from the novel, which reminded me again of just how good it is. He's a good performer, seeking eye contact and gesturing as he read, and again I was fascinated by how carefully weighed up every choice of word seems.

The talk with the critic Jörg Magenau centred on how he managed to write a book set in the GDR, although he comes from the West. I suppose you have to talk about something at these events, but it strikes me as a bit of a stupid question that critics often spend too much time on. How can a man write from a woman's point of view? How can a contemporary German writer set a book in medieval France? How can a writer who grew up in the West put himself into the mind of a suicide bomber? Research and imagination, that's how. Which was pretty much what Jan Böttcher answered too, only slightly more eloquently.

I left the venue and walked home, enjoying the last traces of a beautiful sunset. All the talk of taciturn north Germans prompted me to buy a Jever on the way, which I drank on the balcony as I thanked my lucky stars that I live in Berlin and not a village on the River Elbe.

Fifty-Dollar Franzen

The newspaper Die Welt features an interview today with Jonathon Franzen, in which he talks about his love for Berlin and German literature. It's well worth reading - just don't let your eyes drift right to the celebrity bosom links if you want to get through the whole article.

Franzen studied German, including as an exchange student in Munich, and lived in Berlin in 1981/82. He comments:

I like to quote Karl Kraus, who said the difference between French and German was that between a pretty face and a face that can be transformed to true beauty.* The attraction of the German culture is in the language. It is capable of terrible and wonderful things - incredibly ugly in the wong people's mouths, but unbeatably beautiful in the mouths of others. It was pure luck that I stumbled into this culture. I felt at home straight away in its uneasiness.

And he talks about how he came to translate Frank Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen. Apparently his old lecturer rang him up and offered him $50 for the pleasure. It took him two months and the play was staged once in 1987. Then he managed to get it published last year, fuelled by rage at a Broadway musical version that "Wedekind would have loathed" (as his psychic told him, presumably). I hope he squeezed a bit more out of the publishers for it though.

It's nice to see a big-name US author cheering for German literature, even if he does have that typical Germanist fixation on all the usual "dead white men". And of course it's manna for the Berliners' collective soul when a New Yorker praises their city as highly as Franzen does here. Let's hope the quiet corners of Berlin he bigs up aren't soon overrun by literary tourists...

*The nearest I've found in a very brief search is this: "The French language surrenders to every filou. Faced with the German language a fellow has to be a real man to make her come around…. With French everything is easy…." That old chauvinist Karl Kraus, eh? What a card.

Thursday 3 July 2008

Michael Kleeberg & Other Awards

Rejoice, you English-speaking peoples, for you may now read Michael Kleeberg's hair-raising and exhilarating story, The Communist of Montmartre, on Words Without Borders. Translated by David Dollenmayer, the winner of this year's Wolff Translation Prize.
This is one of those do not pass go, do not collect 200 pounds kind of stories, people. You have to read it right now. This month's Words Without Borders is dedicated to revolutions and revolutionaries, and it sort of fits in and sort of doesn't. But I don't want to give too much away - just go ahead and read it. You should also be able to get hold of Dollenmayer's translation of Kleeberg's novel The King of Corsica, a "modern classic where history, philosophy, and eroticism collide in the grand tradition of the 18th-century novel."

Kleeberg himself translates from French and English and lives in Berlin - when he's not being writer-in-residence in Mainz, that is. Just yesterday, he was presented with Hamburg's Irmgard Heilmann Award for his latest novel Karlmann, an "anthology of masculinity" set firmly in the 1980s. He can add it to his well-stocked cabinet of twelve literary prizes and top up his bank account by €7500.

Speaking of awards, Rosmarie Waldrop recently got the $3000 US PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for Ulf Stolterfoht's Lingos I-IX. Stolterfoht has actually been translated various times; if you're interested, look him up at no man's land for links.

Compared to the above, Marcel Beyer is raking it in. He just won Germany's richest purse for writers, the Jospeh Breitenbach Prize (fifty thousand euros). True to my promise to provide biased and unprofessional reports, I won't bother with any links because his novel Kaltenburg made me fall asleep.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Tuesday 1 July 2008

T-Shirts and Translations

Journalists, eh? They're like policemen - they're getting younger and younger every day. Actually, I remember the first time I saw a baby-faced policeman who was obviously younger than me. It gave me a huge shock, I can tell you. Worse than the shock I got last night when the manuscript I was reading for a review stopped in the middle of a sentence. Pages missing! I hope they turn up at some point, because I really want to find out what happens at the end.

Where was I? Oh yes, journalists, eh? Even the young ones have something to say. Take Stuart Evers, for example. He may look like he's just left college (scroll down a bit) but he has a few good points to make on yesterday's Guardian books blog. His article is enticingly entitled Why we're less scared of "translated by", and it's about marketing the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

Apparently, Harvill went the whole hog, sending out T-shirts, posters and "playful packaging" to win booksellers' hearts:

There's always been an audience for foreign fiction, a willing readership who want to discover the world through different voices. But the perception is that translated works are literary and difficult - fine if you like that sort of thing, a bit off-putting if not. Harvill, who specialise in precisely this kind of fiction, recognised that Murakami potentially had a wider appeal.

And it worked. Evers points out the subsequent success of crime fiction in translation, namechecking Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Anne Elliot, Boris Akunin and Fred Vargas. Plus, as he says, The Shadow of the Wind provided a paradigm shift - a bestselling translation!

He closes:

Excellent original novels, combined with publishers who believe in them and good translators, mean it's now as commercially viable to publish and promote novels in translation as it's ever been. Hopefully the days of waiting 18 years for your debut collection to appear in English are well and truly over, and fiction as superlative as Ogawa's won't be lost to English language readers anymore.

OK, he doesn't name a single translator, but then that isn't the focus of the article. What I've learned is that if publishers aggressively push translations to booksellers, they can be a success - more despite the fact that they're from other countries than because, but who cares. So what we need is Sasa Stanisic plastic wigs, Julia Franck mugs, Wetlands gonks. I know the publishers out there care a hell of a lot about the books they adopt from abroad - they just have to persuade us fickle readers to take one home with us.