Tuesday 30 September 2008

Schlegel-Tieck Prize

As the Literary Saloon notes, the British Translators' Association awarded its annual prizes last night at the South Bank. Unlike the Saloonists, I'm on the mailing list but London is a bit far away for me too. The Schlegel-Tieck Prize for translation from German went to Ian Fairley for his translation of Snow Part by Paul Celan.

The Saloonists complain that nobody's announced yet (or not online) who won the awards. As much as I admire their own hard work and dedication - their blog on world literature is updated daily before I switch on my computer, even though they're in the US and so presumably do it in the middle of the night - they do have to realise that not everyone is quite as efficient. The Translators' Association has one part-time employee, and the rest is done on a voluntary basis by hard-working literary translators. And on the grand scale of things, it's not as if millions of people have been waiting for the announcement with baited breath, is it?

Note also the Guardian article, with a brief joyous comment from Ian Fairley.

Monday 29 September 2008

Shortlist Translations

Signandsight.com now has English excerpts from all six books shortlisted for the German Book Prize online. Except there are only five - the Rolf Lappert title isn't there. Either a broken link or coming soon, I suspect. If you scroll down to the bottom of the Ingo Schulze extract, you'll see (one reason) why I was too busy to blog last week.

I was surprised to find myself really enjoying the book when I read it. It's actually much faster-paced than the extract itself, and very heavy on the dialogue. Which makes it light reading, but not the fluffy kind that leaves you feeling cheated. Lots of fun spotting the biblical motifs, lots of plain food and fine cuisine, hugely atmospheric - summer holidays, East Germany and Hungary in the summer of 89, musical beds and border crossings. But still a number of serious points to be made, including the idea that the GDR was a paradise, at least for Adam, the book's protagonist. Quite a contentious point really.


Lukas Bärfuss: Hundert Tage

Almost inevitably, Lukas Bärfuss’ Hundert Tage has been called a Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. But while he obviously pays homage to Conrad in the story-within-a-story form, Bärfuss has actually created something all his own. Previously known for his stage plays and a single novella, Lukas Bärfuss has never been shy of drawing attention to Switzerland’s faults. This time, though, he pillories his country for its role in the Rwandan genocide.

David Hohl (meaning hollow), the second and main narrator, tells the story of his time as an administrator for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Kigali. He sets out for Africa (from Brussels, another nod at Heart of Darkness, perhaps) a young idealist. But an incident at the airport makes him (and us) question his motivation. A young African woman is being hassled by officials and David takes an angry stand on her behalf. She, however, doesn’t even acknowledge his intervention and certainly doesn’t reward him with the gratitude he expected.

Arriving in Kigali, David Hohl begins leading the dull life of an ex-pat bureaucrat. I found this section of the novel fascinating, as it really reminded me of British colonialist tales. The ex-pats refuse to learn the local language (a “Bantu idiom”) and live an entirely separate, privileged life. There is even a kind of Happy Valley set revolving around a character named Missland, who some critics see as the novel’s Kurtz. Throughout the book, the Swiss adopt a thoroughly patronizing tone towards the Rwandans – they are not ready for democracy, they need to be taught like children how to behave correctly, they are orderly, obedient and unmusical with a love of cows just like the Swiss, and so on. But David seems critical of this attitude, especially when he finally comes across the woman from the airport again.

Their relationship develops as Rwanda descends into genocide. Trapped in the country by the fighting, Agathe condescends to sleep with David and they start a rather superficial relationship. David is obsessed with their extreme sex, swaying between shame, fear of being perverted, and pride at ignoring their cultural differences. And Agathe evolves from the arrogant westernized woman at the airport to a Florence Nightingale tending his wounds after the pope’s visit caused a mass crush, then getting more and more radical as she is drawn into the ethnic violence. But Bärfuss hasn’t made it easy for himself or his readers – Agathe is a Hutu, from a family well-placed in the country’s hierarchies, and ends the novel in a cholera-induced haze, the feared head of an Interahamwe militia group.

Because of Agathe, or perhaps because of a childish longing for adventure and a naïve will to stand by his principles, Hohl does not leave the country along with the rest of his colleagues after the president’s plane is gunned down. He spends the hundred days of the genocide in hiding in his spacious house. Provided with food and water by his former gardener, he ekes out an existence in the knowledge that no one will harm him, a foreigner. But when he realizes his gardener is doing more than just looting out there in the real world, he turns on him. Now alone and on the brink of starvation, he is finally saved by three young murderers who are all too willing to help. The gardener turns up again and David does nothing to prevent the young men from taking him for a Tutsi and taking the inevitable action. At last he has done something he can really be ashamed of. From then on, the narrator abandons his principles, leaving Kigali with the killers for a refugee camp, where he joins in the general corruption to make enough money to get out.

Yet throughout the novel, the narrator’s voice is constantly accusing Switzerland of complicity with the regime, and ultimately if unwittingly with the genocide itself. The Swiss send a radio expert, who teaches the Rwandans how to make interesting broadcasts – which then call for mass murder. The Swiss provide pencils, telephones and streets to prove their own integrity.
“…That’s why we gave them the pencil with which they wrote the death lists, that’s why we laid the telephone lines through which they gave the murder command, and that’s why we built the streets on which the murderers drove to their victims.”
The efficiency and organisation the Swiss admire in the Rwandans is what enables them to kill each other so systematically, the angry David points out.

The narrator rarely describes actual acts of violence. Apart from a few exceptions uttered by other characters, the Hutus and Tutsis are called “tall” and “short” people, rebels and government forces. AIDS is “the plague”. A number of allegories capture Hohl’s relationship with the people of Kigali – most prominently, an injured buzzard lands in his garden and he refuses to let his staff kill it, despite Agathe’s impatience with him over the issue. Instead, he drives around town looking for roadkill to feed it with. Almost ending up in a fight over a dead dog, he arranges for his adversary to bring him more. The next day he finds a freshly killed animal on his doorstep – that he had seen alive with the deliveryman the day before. During the hundred days he stops feeding the buzzard but it manages to recover, its feathers getting sleeker by the day. Horrified when he realizes it has been feeding on human flesh, he immediately kills it with a machete.

The one time he does describe the violence, Bärfuss deliberately contrasts the horror with the gilded lives of the ex-pats. As David watches gorillas in the East, a group of children is brutally killed. In a single sentence, we go from David’s entranced contemplation to the children’s terror.
“Soon we had to leave, our half-hour was up, and while we climbed down the hill the men killed the children, the six girls and the little boy; while I was inspired by the wise beings of the mountain the men did to the girls what men have always done to girls, and when the news went around a few days later that the Blue Helmets had found them with deep wounds to the head, with crimson strangulation marks around their necks, it was not just the cruelty that horrified me, it was the glove that the murderers had dropped by the dead children, a glove like those the rebels wore.”

Bärfuss apparently spent two years researching the novel, gaining access to files from the Swiss development agency and talking to people who were in Kigali at the time. He says the book was prompted by his anger over his country’s role in supporting the corrupt dictatorship in Rwanda from 1963 on, and by their inability to react to the situation. He certainly doesn’t spare any of his characters – all of the Swiss in the book come off badly, even including Missland who saves his Tutsi wife’s family for the sake of her great arse. While other successful films and novels on the subject of the Rwandan genocide seem to rely on a “good guy” saving lives under horrific conditions, love prevailing amidst the terror, and so on, there is no ray of hope here. And although Bärfuss doesn’t address Switzerland’s role in the Holocaust directly, it looms large in the background of this angry tale of a genocide allowed to happen.

I was very moved and impressed by this book, and I really hope it makes its way into English translation. Publishers can get hold of a sample translation from the German Book Office. There are certainly lessons to be learned here for readers from outside of Switzerland, as Bärfuss includes a great deal of material on the background to the Rwandan conflict, the role of the Belgians, the UN, etc. Perhaps it is time for a more literary approach to the subject than those already available in English, and this is certainly that.


...for my absence last week. It got very hectic, from headlice to family nuptials to marathon interpreting sessions. But there should be something to show for it very soon.

Monday 22 September 2008


The FAZ Lesesaal has been busy. It seems there is a mutiny underway - the authors are jumping ship. Michael Lentz got the ball rolling by calling for the German Book Prize to be abolished. Monika Maron reacted by announcing she'd like to boycott the whole shebang. Bodo Kirchhoff chimed in, saying he regretted getting the damn thing set up in the first place. Next up was Daniel Kehlmann, who admitted an abolition was unlikely but wished it wasn't, suggesting a number of changes to the procedure at the very least. And Julia Franck supported that idea, adding that the prize has no aesthetic authority.

Why? In a nutshell, they seem to feel offended at being pitted against one another in a demeaning cock-fight over public attention. They don't like it when they win, and they don't like it when they don't. They resent being categorised in terms of prize-winners and prize-losers. And they see the German Book Prize as just another marketing tool that does them little good, if not direct harm.

It's tempting to say, awww, poor little rich kids. These are not just any old writers, but some of German-language literature's great success stories of recent years, particularly Kehlmann and Franck. But actually, it's got me thinking. As a translator, I suppose I do hang on the creative coat-tails of the authors who write what I translate. As does a whole industry of agents, editors, marketing people, graphic designers, accountants, printers, all the way to the booksellers and their cleaning ladies (if they can afford one). But that too is part and parcel of literature, at least in a society that works the way ours does. If it weren't for this rat's tail, readers wouldn't be able to get hold of the material. I'd say that every link in the chain, from author to reader, is equally important - but I would, wouldn't I? I don't think that authors are the be all and end all of literature - it wouldn't exist without them, but it would fall apart if we removed any other link too - as anyone who has ever read an unedited manuscript will readily confirm.

And I don't agree that the German Book Prize is bad for literature. I genuinely believe that it promotes debate, including on authors and titles that make neither the shortlist nor the longlist. I for one do not restrict my reading to listed books, but I admit I do buy an extra book or two because of a listing. It's an absolute platitude to explain that just because the judges decide a book is the winner, it isn't necessarily the best book of the year. But what's the harm in singling out one book and focusing attention on it? In the case of the German Book Prize, that one book has seldom been the one anyone ever expected, and never has it been just the latest offering by a very established writer that people go out and buy anyway, whatever the quality.

When it comes to authors' sensibilities, though, I'm torn. I can honestly feel with Daniel Kehlmann when he describes the ordeal of sitting though the awards ceremony on tranquilisers. But the point is, even if you go to the ceremony and don't win the actual prize, as was the case with Kehlmann, you're still going home several thousand euros richer. I get the feeling these authors are longing to go back to kindergarten, where every kid gets a prize for taking part. So perhaps the German Book Prize is bad for authors. But that's tough luck because it's really not them who are running the show.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Berlin Publishing: From F'ing Berlin to Herzzeit

The second and final day of our tour of Berlin's publishers with the LCB summer academy for translators of German literature took us from one end of the publishing scale to the other. Although it wasn't as enjoyable as the first day, it was certainly very interesting.

The first stop was Ullstein Verlage - which was probably the most similar to a large British or US publishing house out of those we visited. By that, I mean they work on a strictly commercial basis, with a selection of imprints publishing a broad range of titles in all sorts of popular genres, especially crime fiction, business, politics, esoterica and "inspirational books for women". Claasen is their quality fiction imprint, with writers such as Emma Braslavsky, Joan Didion and the Turkish author Oya Baydar out now. The main difference to a British publisher, though, is a huge one: most of their books are translations. One reason is that they lost a lot of their German authors (for reasons that were not revealed) and another is that books in translation are a safe bet in Germany. If it's sold well in the USA or France, it'll probably do OK here too.

We were escorted to an absolutely gorgeous former school auditorium in their beautiful building on Friedrichstraße, where discussion ranged from the online pre-review platform vorablesen.de run by the Bonnier group (which owns Ullstein), the Sony reader (they like it) to a rather unpleasant argument over why translators are badly paid. I know if I were facing a group of fifteen literary translators, I wouldn't attempt to defend poor pay by complaining that paper prices are so high.

The Ullstein people also told us about two big books. The first won't be out until February 2009, but is by my one of my favourites, Zoran Drvenkar. This will be his third novel for adults, a gory psychological thriller-cum-Berlin prankster adventure called Sorry. I'm looking forward to it and hope to get a review copy. The second was one of their top-sellers: Fucking Berlin.* At this point, most of our jaws dropped. It's "a no-holds-barred account of the sex industry". Sex sells, we were told. The most bizarre point was when the (female) editor told us the book was part of a wave of young women liberating themselves through their sexuality, in the wake of Charlotte Roche. Aha, prostitution = liberation. An interesting standpoint. The author, an Italian single mother working as a part-time prostitute to fund her studies in Berlin, is not, however, liberated enough to write under her own name. Perhaps she should go into translation. Or perhaps translators should go into prostitution - it would at least appear to be rather more lucrative.

From Berlin-Mitte we zipped over to posh Charlottenburg, to the Berlin office of Suhrkamp. Their managing director and his secretary treated us to tea and plum cake, before whizzing though an off-the-cuff presentation of Suhrkamp's history and authors. They're actually based in Frankfurt but have a small "representation" in Berlin, with immaculate interior design that transports you to a timeless place where the chairs are just that bit bigger than usual, very possibly intended to make you feel small as you sit swaying your legs five inches off the floor.

What can I say about Suhrkamp? Quality fiction. World-class writers. Nice towels. And as one of our number remarked afterwards, salon communism. They have two authors on the Book Prize shortlist, Tellkamp and Dath. And they sent us all a copy of the correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, Herzzeit. It really is beautiful, agonising stuff.

The highlight of the day, I have to admit, was an impromptu lunch in the Berliner Ensemble canteen, where we admired Klaus Maria Brandauer in the flesh.

*Blogger won't let me publish this posting with the full title in the headline. Sheesh.

Wetlands... I Was So Right!

Remember my hot tip on who I suspected was translating Wetlands? Well, I was right. BILD broke the story on Tuesday but I didn't notice. Now you can admire the translator Tim Mohr alongside Charlotte Roche, plus read his draft versions of Roche's rude words. According to BILD, it'll be "the most difficult translation of the year". Yeah, right.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

FAZ Reading Room on the Shortlist

Despite apparently not bothering with English extracts this year, the German Book Prize is collaborating with the FAZ to open up online debate. I've mentioned the paper's Lesesaal before, and now they've set one up on the shortlist. It's been online for a good hour now, and is actually rather impressive. As long as you read German, that is.

You can watch a brief and not terribly consequential interview with the Pappa Razzi of German literature, Marcel Reich-Ranicki. You can check out the titles on the shortlist, with links to FAZ reviews. I presume there will also be samples from the texts at some point. You can join in a readers' vote. But the best bit if you ask me is the Forum.

Studded with some of my favourite star critics like Ina Hartwig and Denis Scheck, this is a series of short pieces on, you know - is it a good shortlist, what's missing, which book deserves to win and which really doesn't, and so on. Scheck slags off Uwe Tellkamp's Der Turm, claiming you could sum up the 1000 pages like the first caption in an Asterix comic: band of rebels in the GDR creates fortified village of bourgeois life in country occupied by organised communism. Oliver Vogel lists the ones that got away, including Änderunsgschneiderei Los Milagros and Marlene Streeruwitz's Kreuzungen. But the rest of the titles on his personal list are brought out by publishers other than the one he works for, so that's OK. He also mentions Christian Kracht's upcoming title, which I'm curious about too. Martin Lüdke checks out some statistics - one in a thousand German-language fiction titles makes the shortlist, etc. etc. Plus you can comment on the comments.



So here it is, the shortlist for the German Book Prize. Some surprises, most notably Dietmar Dath and Iris Hanika. See Monday's posting on the longlist for links to the titles.

Dietmar Dath: Die Abschaffung der Arten (Suhrkamp, September 2008)

Sherko Fatah: Das dunkle Schiff (Jung und Jung, February 2008)

Iris Hanika: Treffen sich zwei (Droschl, January 2008)

Rolf Lappert: Nach Hause schwimmen (Hanser, February 2008)

Ingo Schulze: Adam und Evelyn (Berlin Verlag, August 2008)

Uwe Tellkamp: Der Turm (Suhrkamp, September 2008)

Despite claiming that the prize has "intensified debate on the foreign literary and publishing scene," the website gives no indication that translated extracts will be published anywhere. Which I find rather disappointing, to be honest, especially after last year's joint effort with signandsight.com.

I'll be picking up what has to be my favourite out of this lot from the bookshop shortly: Sherko Fatah's Das dunkle Schiff. Otherwise, I'm rather nonplussed. Everyone seems to think Ingo Schulze is destined to win, the perfect compromise candidate - but they also agree that Adam und Evelyn is not his strongest book. And it would seem a wasted opportunity to me to choose someone who's already fairly established in the English-speaking world. Not that that's what the prize is about, officially. Naturally enough, I'm disappointed to see that Lukas Bärfuss, Uwe Timm and Karen Duve didn't make the shortlist hurdle. But I think their books are good enough to stand on their own two feet.

All in all? Hmmm.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Julia Franck and her Translators

Just a quickie, ripped off from the German Book Prize Longlist brochure:

Holger Heimann: Your book (Die Mittagsfrau - last year's prizewinner) is currently being translated into 28 languages, with ongoing negotiations for more licences. What's it like to know that people are reading you in Brazil, China and Japan?

Julia Franck: It's a good feeling. And it's very special that the book is valued enough for someone to spend weeks and months with it. I recently had the pleasure of working with 18 of the translators for a whole week in Straelen, ironing out translation difficulties. It was the most serious and intensive look that I've ever taken at my book and my native language. Working with the translators is the most valuable and the most productive experience for a writer because you are so rarely asked such precise questions on the German language, the associative space of a word, the meaning of a certain syntax. Just imagine, when we presented our work in person at a public event at the end of the week and the French translator checked up, ah, so this phrase cites a certain song almost beyond recognition? What song is it exactly? Zwischen Berg und Tal, tiefem Tal, saßen einst zwei Hasen... - and the audience of over 100 grown men and women, spontaneously enthusiastic and fevered up by our presentation, launched into song. Every translator knew after that how strongly this old folk song is embedded in our collective memory, its tune and its content.

HH: Who would you most like to win?

JF: I'm most looking forward to Uwe Timm and Norbert Gstrein's books. I'd certainly wish those two the prize.

Monday 15 September 2008

My Take on the Longlist

There's nothing like a bout of unspecifiable illness to get you reading, is there? Especially if the main book you're reading is just too much to deal with when you're feeling all teary-eyed and emotional.

So thanks to a stray germ, dear readers, you can at last read my take on the German Book Prize longlist. I spent all day yesterday ploughing through my treasured copy of the longlist reader. It was all a bit of a sacrifice to be honest, because it smells really bad. Really starchy and unpleasant, not like a well-loved book should. To make up for it, the little portraits of the authors are beautifully done. None of your bog-standard "born in 1958, the author divides his time between Paris and Montevideo" business here. But I digress. Here, in all its bullet-pointed glory, is my highly subjective rundown of the tops and flops.

Lukas Bärfuss - Hundert Tage: Incredible. I'm reading the whole book right now, a very cleverly written and angry look at Switzerland's role in the Rwandan genocide. I'll write up a fuller review in due time.

Marcel Beyer - Kaltenburg: Certainly didn't get me "following spellbound the catastrophic course of events in 20th-century Germany." Possibly good reading material for ornithologists though.

Dietmar Dath - Die Abschaffung der Arten: This is very, very strange. The extract in the reader features a conversation between a wolf and a mutating bird-woman, who strokes the wolf's neck. It doesn't really give a very good idea of what the book might be like, or about for that matter. Vaguely Atwood-esque.

Karen Duve - Taxi: As you may be aware, I love this book. Nuff said.

Sherko Fatah - Das dunkle Schiff: Now I understand why everyone is raving about the book. The first extract in the reader took my breath away - beautifully written, interesting perspective, shocking events. The story of an Iraqi pulled into extremism. It's on my list.

Olga Flor - Kollateralschaden: Streams of consciousness at the supermarket. I found the subject of how mothers ought to deal with their children clumsily addressed in the extract and extremely irritating.

Norbert Gstrein - Die Winter im Süden: I nearly gave up on this one but it proved quite intriguing after a while. A woman's budding relationship with a 60s revolutionary, their boring marriage at the age of 50, some kind of secret to do with her father and Yugoslavia, simply narrated, humourous - perhaps one to read.

Peter Handke - Die morawische Nacht: Well he may have withdrawn it from the competition but if I was the judge it wouldn't have won anyway. Slow-moving autoerotic ego massage.

Iris Hanika - Treffen sich zwei: I was surprised to find myself enjoying the extract. The idea of the book hadn't really interested me - a debut novel about a love story in Kreuzberg - but the execution is rather charming. An amusingly angry computer whizz really drew me in, and I suspect the love aspect might be very effective.

Martin Kluger - Der Vogel, der spazieren ging: Hmmm. The extract is very evocative - a showbiz party in 60s (?) France. I can't tell anything about the rest of the book, though, which is apparently a multi-generational study of a Jewish family. Rather baffling.

Judith Kuckart - Die Verdächtige: The passage in the reader confirmed my liking for this crime novel of a love story. Great characterisation.

Rolf Lappert - Nach Hause schwimmen: Ireland. Strange old lady. Heavy on the cliché.

Norbert Nieman - Willkommen neue Träume: I don't think I liked this much, but I've forgotten almost everything about it. Apparently it's a clash of the generations in a village. Terribly poetic language.

Karl-Heinz Ott - Ob wir wollen oder nicht: Oh, I rather liked this. A thoroughly dislikeable narrator arrested for some crime or other. Witty, intelligent, plays on my sympathies.

Hans Pleschinski - Ludwigshöhe: Life's too short for sentences this difficult to untangle. So I didn't bother.

Ingo Schulze - Adam und Evelyn: Looks like classic Ingo Schulze stuff. Well told, good dialogue, interesting enough but it's not going to get your pulse racing.

Uwe Tellkamp - Der Turm: Everybody's raving. I'm snoring.

Uwe Timm - Halbschatten: Ooh, I like the look of this. An exploration of my local graveyard, featuring a suicidal woman pilot. Very sexy. Strange, confusing perspectives. I'm going to buy it.

Martin Walser - Ein liebender Mann: Old arrogant perv falls for 19-year-old beauty. Oh, did I mention that the old guy is Goethe? Martin Walser's latest riff on a familiar theme, fittingly conservative in tone and narration. Perhaps more up the alley of, ahem, older readers of the male persuasion.

Feridun Zaimoglu - Liebesbrand: They've been very clever and included the really excellent part of the book, its opening. Unfortunately, I found the rest of it rather dull.

So there you have it. My turbo-tour of the German Book Prize longlist. The shortlist will be announced on Wednesday.

Friday 12 September 2008

Pullman's Book Table

Waterstones. They've had a good idea. Get established authors to pick some books they like and put them on tables at the front of bookstores.

The second writer to wield the sword of his personal literary taste is Philip Pullmann, renowned author of His Dark Materials and so on. The list is remarkably Germanophile, including Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, the Brothers Grimmses' Complete Fairy Tales (where does the dang apostrophe go?), Kleist's Marquise of O., Rilke's Duino Elegies and Musil's Man Without Qualities.

But the hand-written comments I'd been looking forward to all week are sooooo incredibly disappointing! Pdfs! Scans of teeny-weeny little cards! With one sentence on them! What on earth is the point? And while I'm at it, what exactly is the point of including the sentence "A Major Literary Event: a brilliant new translation of Thomas Mann's first great novel, one of the two for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1929" in a synopsis when the translation actually on sale is the old Helen Lowe-Porter one?

I hope at least the whole thing will revolutionise the face of bookselling, starting a craze for obscure old German books (or obscure for Brits, at any rate).

Scheck Tells it Like it Is

I've mentioned Denis Scheck here before, but I've just discovered his incredibly rude and highly entertaining take on the German bestseller list in print form. Enjoy (providing you speak German, that is).

A wee taster:

Joanne Fedler: Weiberabend
Caricatures of hysterically giggling women, permanently engaged in shallow conversation about kids, cooking or cosmetic surgery, hopelessly lost in the narcissistic mirror maze of their pale personalities: up to now the only place I'd come across anything like this was in misogynist gay comics. Fedler's novel, consisting of a protocol of eight grown women at a pyjama party, all of them mothers, offers up these simple-minded clichés in all seriousness as role models. A deeply depressing book.

Berlin Publishing: Eichborn Berlin

The final stop on our first day of visits to publishing houses around Berlin was Eichborn Berlin.Located at one of Berlin's more exclusive addresses on Oranienburger Straße, the offices are unexpectedly modest - probably because this is another branch office of a larger house, Eichborn proper. We were met by Wolfgang Hörner, an outwardly unassuming man who built Eichborn Berlin up from nothing over the past ten years. He literally radiated energy and enthusiasm, showing genuine adoration for the books he champions - in short, he's the archetypal and perfect literary dork, without whom publishing would be a soulless undertaking shoring up profits and dull prestige.

Eichborn has just shifted its whole literary fiction section from Frankfurt to Berlin, which I think is a great thing. Because it means that Hörner is now in charge of it all. And this is a man who's not afraid to just go ahead and push an author for the sole reason that he likes them, they make him laugh, or cry, or go into full-on literary rapture. Just look at some of their authors: Jenny Erpenbeck, Karen Duve, the ubiquitous Sven Regener (see below), Jan Costin Wagner and the great white hope Wolfgang Herrndorf (not one of my favourites but everyone else seems to love him). Plus they publish translated fiction from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Elif Shafak and Ford Madox Ford. The books themselves are often a joy to behold - unusual formats, that official taxi exterior colour for Duve's Taxi, beautiful illustrations - all the bibliophile fun of the fair.

Hörner was generosity itself when it came to handing out free books. He commented that if anyone deserves them, it's translators. Awww... I've noticed in the past that Eichborn is really good at getting its books into English, and I asked him why. The answer was plain and simple - Jutta Willand. She's the foreign rights director at Eichborn in Frankfurt, and does a great job. Just look at the website - the titles are listed in a clear and attractive format, almost all of them with sample translations. This is a publisher that puts a lot of effort into selling translation rights, knows the right people in the right places and is willing to actually spend some money on the whole thing. Hooray for Jutta Willand and Wolfgang Hörner - long may they reign.

Despite the late hour, this visit was the absolute highlight of our tour. We followed it up with dinner and light chitchat in a local tourist trap, where Hörner proved to be a perfect gentleman, championing the cause of half-sized portions on behalf of a damsel in distress who - very possibly - could have got her own way of her own accord. But that would have been boring. I hope he wasn't upset that we all stood him up at a reading we were too exhausted for later that night...

Thursday 11 September 2008

A Translator's Life for Me

Really, I'm the first to moan about working from home in cramped conditions, never leaving the house, having no social life, etc. One of the side effects is that I sometimes imagine the world is made up solely of people who write texts and people who translate them. Often, the writers are the bad guys and the translators are, you guessed it, the good guys.

But stepping outside my own four walls every now and then reassurres me that things aren't all bad. Over the past few days, I've started to count my blessings. I don't have to work in a bank. Or on a building site. I'm not an actor who elicits double-takes every time I walk down the road. I don't have to sit in an overheated metal box on the way to work. I don't have to wear blouses. I'm not a teacher. The odours in my workplace are all my own.

I'm not going through an acrimonious divorce. I'm not in constant pain. I'm not an alcoholic. I'm not a hideous mental and physical wreck who takes it out on people lower down the pecking order.

Instead, I do a creative and imaginative job, learning something new every day. I get to read exciting and interesting things and put those things into my own words. I don't have to put up with people I don't like talking about what they watched on TV last night. I can put the washing on in my lunch break. I can take my lunch break whenever I want. I don't feel I will ever get to a point where I'll be able to say, "My work is absolutely perfect. There is nothing left to learn." In short, I actually rather love my job.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Herr Lehmann Fever

Berlin is sick. Obsessed, crazed, in the grip of a burning fever for the third and final installment of Sven Regener's Herr Lehmann trilogy, Der kleine Bruder. Everywhere you turn, Sven Regener is staring bullishly at you from magazine covers and the like. Regener's first public incarnation was in the indie-ish band Element of Crime. He published his first novel, Herr Lehmann, in 2001 - and it was an instant hit, plugged on the influential Literarisches Quartett TV show and selling zillions of copies. The almost inevitable film followed in 2003, starring my absolute fave German funny-man Christian Ulmen. Plus the novel was translated into 15 languages, including English as Berlin Blues. (I liked John Brownjohn's translation in general but spotted a couple of nits to pick that suggested he wasn't overly familiar with Berlin.)

Oh yeah, the book's about this guy, Frank Lehmann, who lives in Kreuzberg in 1989 (although the fall of the wall is a mere side note at the end of the book and doesn't even remotely touch on the characters' lives). He works in a bar, falls in love, his parents threaten to visit, and not much happens all in all. But in such an evocative way, it seems, that anyone who ever even dreamed of living in pre-89 Berlin is completely captivated by the whole thing. Regener is considered a master of naturalistic conversation, and it's funny too, in a quietly despairing way.

Regener followed up on Herr Lehmann with Neue Vahr Süd, about Frank Lehmann's time on national service. Our anti-hero leaves home and moves into a shared house in Bremen, then fails to opt out as a conscientious objector and bumbles around incompetently a bit more. All this is actually the first part of the trilogy, chronologically.

So now we have the third part, Der kleine Bruder, which tells the story of Frank Lehmann leaving Bremen and reaching Berlin in around 1980(?). According to the blurb, it's "a parallel universe full of artists, squatters, dogs, punks and owners and proppers-up of bars. Beer, opinions, speeches, traitor swine — they're all there." I haven't read it, can you tell?

Regener is a huge star over here. He doesn't give readings in book shops or libraries or even literary centres - the guy fills theatre-size venues. His upcoming reading tour could just as well be a list of venues played by a major indie band. I assume the reasons why the English-speaking world hasn't been treated to the follow-ups to Herr Lehmann are that a) Berlin Blues didn't sell as well as someone hoped, and b) Neue Vahr Süd is set in Bremen and thus not as sexy from the marketing point of view. Shame really. Assuming this third part will be a megaseller, I hope it will help sell the rights to the previous book too.

More on the German Book Prize

At last, someone has provided an English-language overview of the German Book Prize longlist. Hooray for Claudius Niessen (a very busy man) on Litrix.

Monday 8 September 2008

Änderunsgschneiderei Los Milagros

This book smiled at me from a table in a chainstore. It's a beautiful hardback, illustrated with full-page colour pictures at the end of each chapter, like samples or patches of cloth. The story is set in Buenos Aires, where Mariana works in her aunt's tailor shop - the Milagros of the title. It starts off conventionally enough - Mariana, her workmates, her mother, her home, her late father. Then along comes Analía to get her mother's wedding dress altered. And we learn about Gerardo, the boyfriend. Then the narrative gradually spins out of control.

Written in German although the author is Argentinian, it's María Cecilia Barbetta's debut novel, and it's all about women. So the settings are all very female - hairdresser's, homes, tailor shops, with occasional outings to more mystical places like a planetarium and a fortune teller's office. The women chat, play the piano, sew, mend, dress and undress, read, drink tea and walk in the park. For the most part, the plot could be taking place in 1928 or 2008 - the women's lives, thoughts and opinions are strangely antiquated. Men are mainly conspicuous by their absence - the dead father, the errant boyfriend, the strangely slippery fiancé - but there are a couple of chapters that bring us straight up to the present day. Gerardo and his pals share joints and jokes at someone's house, planning to fly to the Bermuda Triangle to find the island home of the mythical Amazons. But then again, it might be the 70s...

Like the pictures, the writing itself seems to leave clues at every turn. Castor and Pollux, the praying mantis, witchcraft, Wonder Woman, love potions. Even the ending is guesswork for the reader, implied by the previous chapters, anagrams and pictures. We have to draw our own conclusions, like gossip that never speaks the final truth, all conjecture and over-ripe imagination. By this point, Mariana herself seems to have lost control, and the confused ending reflects her emotional state.

What I really enjoyed was the often rather experimental writing. One chapter is set out in three columns - one for the nagging mother, one for Mariana and her sewing machine and one for a radio programme on that Bermuda Triangle again. Be fun to translate, I suspect. In general, though, I felt Barbetta was trying slightly too hard. It was often too much, impossible to spot even a fraction of the pointers in text and image. And I felt the plot was not sewn together tightly enough - what was intended as a patchwork stayed more of a ragbag, the mixture of patterns and textures fraying at the edges. In the end, I did have that wonderful elated moment of comprehension that a great conclusion can sometimes bring. But I also felt slightly inadequate, confused and disappointed.

I decided to write up the book nevertheless, because it was a genuine pleasure to read - and because it's such a beautiful book. I had a crowd of female translators cooing over it at my workshop the week before last. I hope Barbetta carries on in this vein, maybe packing her stories a little lighter in future. You can read the first chapter (in German) here or listen to the author reading it here.

Berlin Publishing: Rowohlt Berlin

The second publisher we visited with the LCB summer academy was Rowohlt Berlin. In the 1990s quite a few German publishers decided to set up branch offices in the new capital, as Berlin had been the pre-war publishing hub and as it's closer to Eastern Europe than Frankfurt, Cologne or Munich. And the nature of Berlin determines the publishing programme at Rowohlt Berlin - political and other non-fiction titles, fiction from eastwards of Germany and up-and-coming authors such as Kerstin Fuchs and Jan Böttcher. They have a small but perfectly formed headquarters in Kreuzberg, where we were met by their brand new editor, Susann Rehlein. Again, she was genuinely enthusiastic about most of the books they publish and looking forward to her new job. And she too was very generous on the free books front. She reads Russian and has the time and energy to spend those long drunken hours out scouting for literary discoveries around Berlin.

The catalogue is a solid mixture of fluffy and heavyweight titles, often with a slight edge to them - Kathrin Passig and Sascha Lobo's Dinge geregelt kriegen, for example, is a manual for getting through life without self-discipline. Next to a "biography" of the German basic law and the autobiography of a famous sex-education guru, Oswald Kolle. I've already shared my admiration for Jan Böttcher's Nachglühen here, but I'm also very much looking forward to the next book by FC Delius, another Rowohlt Berlin author. Apparently it's going to be a monologue and love story dictated by Konrad Zuse. I really liked an earlier story of Delius', The Pears of Ribbeck (Exile Editions 1991, trans. H. Werner), which is also a monologue as I remember, all in one very, very, very long sentence, on the subject of German reunification, West German arrogance and the history of an agricultural village.

What else did we learn? That selling 30,000 copies will get you onto the German non-fiction bestseller list at the moment. And that Rowohlt Berlin is generally one to watch.

The Top Seven Inches of My Head

...are on display at Transcript (German version only). Otherwise, you can enjoy poetry translated from Hebrew, Maltese, Arabic, French and Icelandic, plus the outcome of a Welsh-Belgian translation workshop.

Thursday 4 September 2008

Handke - an Independent Reader?

The Literary Saloon points out references in an Independent article to several authors who have deliberately evaded nomination for the Booker Prize, namely Patrick White, John Fowles and John LeCarré.

And now Peter Handke has had his book removed from the German Book Prize longlist (German press release). Which makes you wonder what promted his decision... He says, "I am pleased that die Morawische Nacht has been nominated for the book prize. However, I would like to step down in favour of the other nominees, particularly the younger authors, with all due respect for the honourable judges."

Handke is a bit of a colourful character to begin with. He stirred up the literary establishment by slagging off the fat cats of Gruppe 47 in 1966. (Note in that Wikipedia link that this was essentially a men's literary group, not that that was what bothered Handke.) He later calmed down somewhat, and his Linkshändige Frau and Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers were both on my university reading lists - not good choices for impatient undergraduates, though. He wrote the screenplay for that old favourite Wings of Desire. Then suddenly, just when you thought he was resting on his laurels, he took an unpopular stance on the war in Yugoslavia - pro-Serbian. Critics accused him of relativising war crimes, whereas he said he was criticising the media's unilateral coverage. He visited Slobodan Milosevic in prison in the Hague, but declined to speak as a witness in his defence. In 2006 he spoke at his funeral, raising wails of criticism.

He was then chosen for the Heinrich Heine literature prize awarded by the city of Dusseldorf. Which was a feast for local politicians, who said they would refuse to grant him the €50,000 prize money. It may not have helped matters that all this happened during the silly season. I'm not quite sure any more whether Handke was leaned on or whether he declined the award of his own accord. Whatever, a group of actors at the Berliner Ensemble (Brecht's former theatre) started a campaign on his behalf and raised €50,000 - which Handke again declined, preferring to donate it to the Serbian-populated village of Velika Hoča in Kosovo.

So a man now used to turning down awards. Not that it will do him much damage - I note that the rights to die Morawische Nacht have already been sold to the USA, Serbia, Finland, Italy and France.

Wednesday 3 September 2008


Part of the fun at the summer academy was the evening readings at the LCB. The building is a villa dating back to 1884, backing on to the Wannsee lake. You enter through one of those large, heavy wooden doors that I love about Berlin (although the doors to many apartment buildings, including my own, are even more ridiculously dimensioned, either to allow coach access or just to generally show off). Then you're in a dark-panelled vestibule with a grand piano hiding in the corner. An ostentatious staircase curves off to the left, before you step into the next room - more panelling, a beautiful conservatory straight ahead with a tiny bar tucked away behind a secret door. The large room where the readings are held is modern enough, with rows of chairs and white walls, but a stone collonade jutting into the room hides the PA system. The walls are decorated with black and white photos of literary types who have read or stayed at the LCB in the past, familiar faces instilling a sense of longstanding and heavyweight tradition alongside younger upstarts who reflect what the LCB is all about today.

Yet despite the opulent surroundings, the atmosphere is generally very down to earth and welcoming. In the summer you can often stroll around the beautiful garden and go down (literally - it's very steep) to the water. A good sniff of the Wannsee usually puts me off swimming for a year or two but it looks most idyllic. And the drinks are fairly priced; perfect for starving artists venturing out of their garrets.

We were treated to a total of eight authors during two readings. Unfortunately for concentration purposes, on the first evening we had also been treated to drinks and food beforehand, preceded by a great deal of fascinating input. Nevertheless, Hans-Ulrich Treichel, an author I had previously been a little sceptical about for some inexplicable reason, managed to make a lasting and very positive impression on almost all of us. He read from his new novel Anatolin, an account of a writer travelling in an attempt to fill the gaps in his childhood memory, especially about his family's past, laden with irony and subtle humour. It follows on from his first novel, translated by Carol Brown Janeway as Lost, and the later Menschenflug in that it tackles elements of his own autobiography, but seems very reflective and detached.

The second reading was an absolute marathon - six authors presenting their new titles in about two hours. Not bad, eh? Two stood out in particular. The first was Judith Kuckart reading from Die Verdächtige. This is a love story embedded in a crime novel. A woman loses her boyfriend on a ghost train, then falls in love with the detective charged with finding him. I particularly liked a scene from later on in the book, where the detective is drinking beer and listening to Bob Dylan's radio show at home when someone starts shooting at him, all the while accompanied by Dylan's drawl. Bizarre, comical, appealing - and longlisted for the German Book Prize. I also enjoyed Marion Poschmann's Hundenovelle, in which a dog becomes a symbol of melancholy and a lonely woman first takes it in and then throws it out, only to yearn for it after all, growing more and more canine with every day. The author came across as incredibly intelligent, and I suspect the book is too, but entertaining with it. Poschmann told us how she alternates between prose and poetry on a yearly basis - an interesting idea, I thought.

So all in all, a bumper crop.

Monday 1 September 2008

Good Translators Go to Heaven

...better ones come to Berlin. It's not just John E. Woods who loves living in Berlin - it seems Susan Bernofsky considers this fair city her second home as well - or at least so she says in her interesting blog. Plus I know of one British literary translator who's obviously living incognito in Neukölln and one American one who's moving here in October.

Come one, come all, and discover the wonderful world of German books up close in Berlin!

Berlin Publishers: Berlin Verlag

I thought I'd give you the benefit of the summer academy by starting off with a series of brief portraits of the publishers we visited during the week. In general, these visits were very enjoyable, and very much a two-way thing. We translators are interested in what kind of things they publish and what they're bringing out right now. And the publishers generally know that translators can be instrumental in getting their books published abroad. So all of them treated us very well, plying us with coffee, brochures, biscuits, cake and in some cases actual books.

Our first stop was Berlin Verlag, where the foreign rights person, Sabine Oswald, showed us around and gave us the goods. The company was founded in 1994 after a group of editors left Fischer, allegedly after a row about covers... and in fact they do have very nice covers. Not that Fischer don't, but still. The company, consisting of five separate brands and employing 28 people, is now owned by Bloomsbury but has a great deal of freedom. Berlin Verlag has published Elfriede Jelinek, Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, Jonathan Littel and Zeruya Shalev, and discovered Ingo Schulze, plus they publish a number of contemporary German poets.

They also have absolutely gorgeous children's books, although Sabine Oswald commented that German and Anglo-American taste in illustrations and subject matter are very far apart. I agree, but I have to say I much prefer many German children's books to all the awful fairy and pirate fodder kids get served up in British bookshops. Apparently the Greeks like German children's books a lot too.

Their latest coup is Ingo Schulze's Adam und Evelyn, which is tipped to win the German Book Prize. As you might guess, it's a story about paradises real and imagined, and being an Ingo Schulze book, it's also about East Germany in 1989. It was originally thought up for Canongate's Myths series, but kind of got out of hand at some point and doesn't quite fit in any more.

Sabine also bigged up Gila Lustiger's Herr Grinberg & Co, ostensibly a children's novel but also available in an adult version with a different cover and a different quote at the beginning. I'm not sure what other differences there are. Apparently it covers all sorts of philosophical subject matter, from loneliness to friendship. Plus a title from the backlist, Keto von Waberer's Schwester, an eminently readable and painful emotional portrait of two sisters. I loved the very promising opening sentence.

Although they have had a Scandinavian and Eastern European focus in the past (partly depending on which languages the editors read!), Berlin Verlag is now looking closer to home, and has a lively young editor willing to drink beer in Berlin bars and listen to undiscovered authors at readings. The first fruits of this hard work take the form of the forthcoming Paradiso by Thomas Klupp, a road movie of a book about a thoroughly dislikeable character.

In general, this visit was one of the most enjoyable. Sabine was very generous on the free books front, very passionate about her work and a very impressive professional. She really seemed to love the books that Berlin Verlag publishes and managed to instill some of that enthusiasm in us, too. Let's hope our visit bears fruit in terms of translations...