Sunday 29 March 2009

NYT Goes B

I'm beginning to feel like the FBI, what with all the anonymous tip-offs coming in. So do check out Maureen Freely on translating Orhan Parmuk (not strictly a German book, but thanks anyway) in the Washington Post.

And more pertinently, you can read an interesting article by Nicholas Kulish, former Krautgarden participant, author of Last One In and NYT Berlin correspondent, on the writing and readings culture in Berlin. For the "cultured traveller", heh heh. What I found interesting was the gossip on Adler & Söhne, an office shared by seven writers in Prenzlauer Berg - including Kulish's buddy Thomas Pletzinger (Funeral of a Dog is forthcoming in English, trans. Ross Benjamin) and Sasa Stanisic (longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, trans. Anthea Bell). Kulish writes:

Seven young writers, including Mr. Pletzinger, rented a space in the former eastern part of the city to challenge the notion that their profession is, by necessity, a solitary one. They opened a storefront where they can work side by side, calling it Adler & Söhne Literaturproduktion, a kind of highbrow sweatshop for the stitching together of sentences.

Nice. The idea that the shop might once have housed the tobacconist who sold Heiner Müller his cigars says a lot about urban development in Berlin - including the fact that those who unwittingly profit from the changes feel nostalgic for what was there before. Brecht's tobacconist on Chausseestraße also went bust a few years ago. I believe that shop is also now an office, but I'll check in the morning.

Update: The former tobacconist on Chausseestraße is now some kind of mysterious gallery or office space with frosted glass windowpanes. The former academic bookshop is empty and the former Bookshop in the Brecht House is a bistro selling fresh pasta and wine, having given up the idea of being an upmarket (and rather rude) newsagent's. What would Helene Weigel say?

Friday 27 March 2009

Das Fremde und das Eigene

Berlin's Literaturwerkstatt has been running an interesting small series of events under the above title. The phrase is rather popular but difficult to translate. My trusty Muret-Sanders offers about six column inches of translations for "fremd": strange, foreign, exotic, other people's, extraneous, outside, other, alien... "Eigen" is fairly clear-cut, at least superficially, meaning "one's own". But what is foreign and domestic in literature? What is exotic and familiar? What is extrinsic and intrinsic?

The first event in the series was held at the Social Democratic research institute in Berlin and was a pretty heavyweight affair. It started with a panel discussion between politicians, researchers and "migrant authors" - Imre Török and Zafer Senocak, in this case. Although the discussion was fairly rambling, it soon emerged that nobody is happy with the labels applied to literature written in German by authors with other cultural backgrounds.

One of the key issues for the series is how mainstream literary culture reflects minorities, and indeed the last event will be about German-language literature's difficulties with homosexuality. The panel discussion touched rather briefly on this subject, with the researcher Meral Cerci explaining how other media have actually begun including ethnic and sexual minorities - the Turkish motorway cop, the gay neighbour, and so on. In literature, it seems, that's something reserved for the minorities themselves. Write what you know, they say, and it looks like many German authors don't know many people outside of their own demographic.

The discussion was followed by a reading by four top-notch authors, which I found more productive than the first half. Sherko Fatah, Terezia Mora and Zafer Senocak more than proved that their writing is of excellent quality, wherever they happen to come from, and Michael Wildenhain played the role of the token German, the exception that proves the rule. They were all agreed that they have definitively "arrived" slap-bang in the literary establishment, earning prizes and grants galore.

This week saw the second event, which focused on writing in German as a foreign language. The authors were not quite as established, with stronger accents and (for the most part) less experience. Maria Cecilia Barbetta, Abbas Khider, Orsolya Kalasz and Pedro Kadivar read from their prose and poetry and talked about the freedoms and confines of writing in German. Kadivar, who also writes in French, touched on the controversy over Francophone literature - an issue that has a different weighting in Germany, which never had colonies to speak of.

The presenter, Professor Doktor Norbert Dittmar, was better than I had expected from his slightly embarrassing performance at the first event. He's an expert on second-language acquisition and so comes at the issue from a certain direction - which was absolutely inappropriate on the initial panel but seemed more fitting here. Very affirmative and congratulatory in a way that bordered on the patronising - what a great achievement it is to write literature in German, how well the authors have done, etc. If you're familiar with Zafer Senocak, you can imagine how well that went down with him, but he grinned and bore it. What I did approve of was Dittmar's rejection of the standard labels and insistence on the fact that the authors write German-language literature, period.

It turned out to be a positive evening, if not all that insightful - but if I hear one more person comparing the German language to a lover in the near future I won't be able to account for my actions.

Thursday 26 March 2009

The Rise and Rise of Elke Heidenreich

I've written about La Heidenreich before, the "most influential woman in German culture". Just when her star seemed to be waning - she got the sack from her TV show and the click rating or whatever it's called for the internet version was pretty unimpressive - she's back in the headlines again. Heidenreich has launched the first season of her own imprint, pithily named Edition Elke Heidenreich, combining literature and music in four Heidenreich-esque publications. They look like beautifully made books: two non-fiction titles, a Tuscany novel by Günther Freitag and a re-release of Franz Werfel's Roman der Oper from 1923 (published in English as Verdi. A Novel of the Opera).

Watch out for advertising spreads in Brigitte, the women's magazine that shifts more books than any other publication, and the more masculine mustachio'd press.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Dear Charlotte Roche,

How's things? I hear Wetlands is doing pretty well in the UK, if not quite matching up to the huge German sales figures. But still not bad for a translation. And coming out in the US in a couple of weeks, eh? That should be exciting. Will you be going over to promote the launch?

Anyway, I thought I'd call your attention to a couple of reviews from North America. The first is by a Canadian sex columnist, who likes the book. The best thing about it, though, is that the reviewer's name is Josey Vogels and it's published in the National Post's "Afterword" column - now I know you're giggling at that.

And I really recommend you read this, the most rambling and entertaining and philosophical review I have yet read of the book (by Justin E. H. Smith in N1BR). I think you'll find it funny and revealing, if not particularly flattering. And cheaper than a shrink. You'll be especially tickled by the guy's bemusement at the downright (or upright) healthiness of young Germans' sexuality and his comments on the proto-Germanic nature of English swearwords.

And you probably know the Complete Review's review, which has been out there a while now. But just in case, it's a good one too. And they keep comparing it to The Kindly Ones, funnily enough.

Anyway, keep your pecker up and carry on camping.

All the best,


Monday 23 March 2009

Liverpudlian Lesefest

For the spontaneous: tonight sees a reading by the German author Maike Wetzel at Liverpool's Bluecoat - the last in a series launching her short story collection Long Days in English (trans. Lyn Marven).

It's been a while since I read the book (in German), but one story still stands out in my mind, a moving tale of a girl watching her sister live through anorexia. Wetzel seems to have an eye for psychological detail in everyday life, and as far as I recall her stories are fairly universal. But as you can tell, I'm struggling here. Just wanted to tell you about the reading so you can go along, really.

Friday 20 March 2009


I mentioned some time ago that Zoran Drvenkar's novel Sorry was one of the books I was looking forward to at the start of this year. The publishers have gone to a lot of trouble to advertise it (including the flashy microsite linked above) and it seems to have worked very well - Drvenkar is pretty much everywhere you look at the moment.

The book is billed as a "thriller like a bad dream", and I'd say that sums it up rather well. I'm a big fan of his children's books and enjoyed Drvenkar's debut novel for adults, Du bist zu schnell, because it's the story of a fucked-up kid who sees things - or does she? – and it really messed with my mind. As did Sorry, which I suppose must be a good thing.

The book is about a group of friends who set up an agency for apologies - hence the title. But then someone commissions them to apologise to a corpse. And to get rid of the body on his behalf. Drvenkar has set the book firmly in Berlin, but it's a city with a raw underbelly of violence and child abuse. The author throws up questions about guilt and innocence, right and wrong. In an interview with the booksellers' mag Börsenblatt, he says writing the book really took it out of him. I can only say that reading it wasn't exactly a walk in the park, either.

Drvenkar constructs the novel very cleverly, playing hide and seek with the reader. Some sections are narrated in the first person, some address the reader directly as "you" - sucking you in to the kind of action I for one didn't want to feel involved in. Some of it is in the third person, but you still don't always know who's who. The characters we can identify are like old friends - lovingly sketched with all their faults. And the characters we can't identify are incredibly threatening.

This is, as everyone seems to agree, an extraordinarily good thriller in the style of the American greats. It works as a piece of well thought-out literature as well. But what it really excels at is churning up your insides as you read about murder and child abuse. There were a number of times I felt genuinely sick to my stomach - not because Drvenkar describes physical abuse; he pans out at key moments there. But because he details the psychological side of it, the continuities, the perverse ties between victims and perpetrators. In the interview, he closes:

What adults do to each other is a book of its own, but what they do to children is an affront to life itself in my eyes. There is no excuse for child abuse.

That message certainly comes across in Sorry. Not for the weak-stomached.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Prizes Prizes Prizes

I received an anonymous tip-off that three former East German writers are to share the €60,000 National Prize, awarded by the liberal-conservative Deutsche Nationalstiftung. According to big bod Kurt Biedenkopf, the three "promote our mutual awareness of history and a sympathetic feeling of being a single nation (Wir-Gefühl) in an exemplary way." The authors in question are Erich Loest, 83, Monika Maron, 68, and German Book Prize winner Uwe Tellkamp, 40 - thus showering money on three generations of writers who work towards the foundation's goal of "promoting the national identity of the Germans in a united Europe" by explaining the former East Germany for readers who never experienced it first hand.

Tonight also sees the awards ceremony for Berlin's Fontane Prize, worth €15,000, which goes to the lovely and very trinkfest Emine Sevgi Özdamar. Various other artists including Dietmar Dath also get € 5000 each. Berlin - poor but sexy, eh? According to the jury, "Emine Sevgi Özdamar is an example that the consequence of differences meeting up is not necessarily a levelling, but that a mixture of different ways of thinking, speaking and feeling can create something new that is of profit for both sides." You can read a number of her novels in English, most recently The Bridge of the Golden Horn (trans. Martin Chalmers, a man who knows a thousand songs and a good few pubs).

And then of course there was the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair last week. The three winners each get €15,000 too, and I was there to see the ceremony. The translation award went to Eike Schönfeld, looking very dapper as always, for his translation of Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. I was a bit nonplussed by the laudatory speech, in which a critic spent more time talking about Saul Bellow than the translation. Schönfeld has a lot of translations and re-translations under his belt and proclaimed loudly that he doesn't like to read books through before he starts work on them - that maintains the element of surprise and is a darn sight quicker too. The non-fiction award went to the beardy historian Herfried Münkler for Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen. And the fiction prize to Sibylle Lewitscharoff for Apostoloff, an apparently wickedly funny anti-Bulgaria novel that is at the top of my pile.

Interestingly enough, Daniel Kehlmann, who was also nominated for the prize and was one of the writers who complained about the terrible pressure of such occasions last year in the run-up to the German Book Prize, didn't attend the announcements ceremony. I also spotted a heavily bearded Andreas Maier slipping out just seconds after the fiction winner was announced. Ulrich Greiner, literary editor of DIE ZEIT, even referred to the criticism of pitting authors against each other for awards in his opening speech. He pointed out that these big prizes are a way to publicise good books independently of advertising budgets - although a look at the nominees shows that small publishers don't get a look-in either way. Having slipped into the VIP area after the deed was done thanks to an attractive friend and two sets of batted eyelashes, I can at least confirm that hanging with the big guns isn't as spectacular or interesting as it looks from the other side of the cordon. But at least you get to drown your sorrows for free if you don't win.

Monday 16 March 2009

Looking Back at Leipzig

This time around, my visit to the Leipzig Book Fair was slightly different to usual. First off, I usually have a trusty partner in crime but he couldn't make it this year, what with cycling around the Middle East and all that. Instead I got to know a few of the vagaries of the Balkan literary world, as my companion hailed from Macedonia. There were also more events aimed specifically at translators than ever - and also, I got the feeling, more translators into English popping up all over the place at unexpected moments. So although it was great to see all these people, it felt rather more like business than pleasure at times. There was lots of talking shop with publishing people and gossiping with colleagues, which is fun in its way but inevitably left less time for consuming literature. But I was tickled to talk to Wolfgang Hörner, who had indulged in a spot of vanity googling and found my glowing praise of his person.

Still, I did manage to catch a few readings, if not the usual overflowing cornucopia. I went to a couple of Krautgarden events and rather liked Aleksandar Hemon, who read from The Lazarus Project - although as usual I was annoyed by Sigrid Löffler, the critic who presented him. She's a person I always mean to respect but fail to do so because she just talks so much - in this case combining the role of interpreter and moderator into an almost one-woman show while Hemon leaned back and looked bemused, uncomprehending.

And at the glorious Lange Leipziger Lesenacht I enjoyed Benjamin Lebert's reading from his new novel Flug der Pelikane (sample in German here). The book is set in Hamburg and the USA, with a young man becoming obsessed with an escape from Alcatraz. A couple behind me got my goat by whispering "Isn't he cute?" all the way through, but it's true. The man is 27, looks about 15 - and has the talent of an accomplished writer, having debuted ten years ago. He's even taught creative writing in New York, bizarrely enough. Peter Constantine's translation of Lebert's previous novel The Bird is a Raven won him the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize in 2007.

I also saw Maria Cecilia Barbetta in interview and reading from Änderunsgschneiderei Los Milagros (on the German Book Office's latest list for translation funding, by the way). I had met her on Monday and fawned rather, being quite a fan of her beautiful and playful novel. And seeing her at the book fair confirmed my impression of a really smily and charming - and stylish - person who loves writing.

The highlight for me though was swinging back to the positive side of my seesawing attitude to Feridun Zaimoglu. He was one of six European authors invited to write a piece on the subject, "Where is Europe drifting?" and present it at the fair. The texts will be published in the journal Sprache im technischen Zeitalter. Zaimoglu was on finest form, reading his provocative text in a slightly restrained version of his usual lyrical singsong. He described attitudes on the ground to migration and Europe in the North - Kiel - the South - Istanbul - and the East - Prague. Apparently the West was implicit as a phantom throughout, but I was vaguely offended that he hadn't worked his stay in Wales into the piece, which was more prose than essay. Best of all, and I'm sure he was pleased too, the text made a number of elderly ladies all hot under the collar. They left, shaking their heads in protest, during the section where Zaimoglu had "collated" opinions from a fictitious (?) working mens' bar in Kiel. It was like Kanak Sprak all over again, only this time the Germans were shitting on the Turks (and the Poles and the Czechs and so on), not the other way around. But although he claimed he finds the statements of the man on the street "truer" than what you hear in cappuccino bars, the man is reflective enough to admit that he can't possibly represent those people - who, he said, have a voice of their own. And the presenter Thomas Geiger finally nailed him down on his political position: "salon lefty". Well well well.

I spent all of yesterday recovering.

Wednesday 11 March 2009


Last year I wrote How Do I Love Thee, Leipzig? - and this year they're organising a party by the same name.* I'll be talking, dancing and quizzing with Ulrike Almut Sandig, Mathias Irle (brandeins), Frank Patitz and his Retrovelo-Soundsystem and Claudius Nießen at the release party for the new Moleskine City Notebook Leipzig Special Edition 600 Years of Universität Leipzig. Tomorrow night. At Paris Syndrom.

I'm really quite excited about it all, the highlight of my literary year - the Leipzig Book Fair in all its glory, with grown men and women dressed as manga characters, crowds of schoolkids, readings galore and parties parties parties. Luckily (or not, as the case may be) I overexercised by liver at the lcb the other night, so I won't be tempted to go too wild.

You shall know me by my groovy new "I heart german books" badge, in case any fellow German book lovers happen to bump into me.

*Not strictly a coincidence. We translators move in mysterious ways.

Friday 6 March 2009

Conversational Buddenbrooks

Scott Esposito writes Conversational Reading. And he'll be reading Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks this month, as will two of his buddies. And he'll be talking about it with them (and maybe you but certainly not me) on his blog. He doesn't mention whether it's John Woods' translation or the earlier Lowe-Porter version they're working with.

Nice idea.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Chamisso Prize: "Seismograph and Symbol"

In the Frankfurter Rundschau, Katrin Hillgruber interviews the winners of this year's Chamisso Prize, Artur Becker, María Cecilia Barbetta and Tzveta Sofronieva. For those not yet familiar with my personal stance on this award (or indeed the award itself), a brief summary:

The Adelbert von Chamisso Prize is awarded to "authors whose mother tongue and cultural background are non-German and whose works make an important contribution to German literature." I personally feel it and the way it presents the writers in question ghettoises their work - but it does raise their profile significantly and they get either 15000 or 7000 euro - certainly not to be sniffed at. You can read previous rants on the subject here and here.

If you ask me, anyone who chooses to write in a particular language is automatically part of that literature - whether their mother spoke to them in Spanish or Swahili or Serbo-Croat. Of course they may be influenced by Latin American writing or African literature, but then so may writers of German ethnic origin. Artur Becker sees that differently though. In the interview he talks about a long discussion he had with the ubiquitous Feridun Zaimoglu, who vehemently defines himself as a German writer regardless of his Turkish background. Becker's response: "Look in the mirror, if you're a German author then I'm an elephant." I for one would have punched him for that. He sees himself, he says, not exclusively as a German-speaking writer but also as a Polish author in the German language.

Towards the end of the interview, however, Becker seems to have changed his mind:

About fifteen years ago I wouldn't have dared to criticise my German compatriots. Now I can allow myself to do so, because it really has become my country through and through. And I feel it's the goddamned duty of a writer and intellectual, if they love their homeland, not to turn a blind eye on certain problems. I lived here in a paradise for a long time, and at some point my eyes opened. I knew I'd arrived at the moment when I stopped thinking: 'That's a German.' Suddenly I realised: 'They're people.' And that's something you only think in your mother tongue about your own compatriots.

I'm uncomfortable with this language, which often crops up in conjunction with the award, because I feel it reduces individuals almost entirely to their ethnic origins and identities - and aren't we actually much more than the sum of our parents' nationalities?

What the article points out is how the award has changed over the 25 years of its existence. If you look back over the list of winners, you can see they've changed from representatives of the typical "guest worker" nationalities such as Turks and Italians to a more diverse mix. And what I find most telling is that many of the recent winners have also received other awards, been translated into various languages, sold huge numbers of books and so on. The FR adds that mixed languages and national identities have become more normal phenomena - and that the award thus has a dual function, as a seismograph and symbol.

In my humble opinion, it would be a great deal more symbolic to scrap the award and give the money to writers who reflect Germany's diversity in their writing, whatever passport they hold.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Fifth Avenue Envy

Usually, I'm utterly convinced I live in the best city in the world. German bookwise, Berlin is probably the best place in the world to be - there are great publishers here, authors by the hundreds, incredibly literary institutions and of course thousands of readings.

But there are times when other places start looking very attractive from the German booklover's perspective. And right now, that place is New York. As I've mentioned, Krautgarden kicks off there tonight, followed next month by the PEN World Voices Festival featuring a couple of really great German writers. And just so no one misses anything, the Goethe Institut now has a splendiferous blog to keep you up to date on events, press coverage, new translations and all that other essential information.

Next week, of course, I'll have my envy in check, as I'll be attending what I'd definitely define as the world's best book fair for those enamoured of Teutonic writing: Leipzig!

Monday 2 March 2009

Zaia Alexander on Snowed Under

Antje Rávic Strubel’s debut novel Unter Schnee was translated into English by Zaia Alexander. You can read a sample from Snowed Under on Strubel’s website. The book tells the story of a disintegrating relationship patched up, perhaps, during a skiing holiday in the Czech Republic. But it’s also a microcosm of East-West relations and the way other people looking in from outside view a relationship. Those lucky New Yorkers will get a chance to see Antje, Zaia and Clemens Meyer in conversation as part of the PEN World Voices Festival this spring. I talked to Zaia about her excellent translation.

Zaia, tell us about the book. What made you want to translate it?
Every chapter has a different voice and this intrigued me. I wanted to stretch my ability as a translator to enter not only an author's writing style, rhythm, vocabulary, but to experiment with creating a panoply of voices. In some cases, I took rather large liberties in finding voices, such as with the small time crooks. I gave them a kind of 40s Raymond Chandler register. Antje has told me this was exactly the kind of voice she had heard, but the German language was limited in this regard...that vocabulary is exclusively the translation, in a sense, fulfilled the original intent.
There were also stunningly beautiful descriptions of nature and touching moments in the book that inspired me to spontaneously begin translating it. Being her first and half novel (she wrote the book simultaneously to her first novel Offene Blende) it gave me the opportunity to move slowly and methodically into her oeuvres, to enter her writing laboratory and chart her obsessions from the start.

The first thing that struck me, almost as soon as I started reading, was - all that snow! Was it difficult to translate all the skiing and winter weather in the book, as a native of LA?
In fact, it was a big challenge. I'm not a skier and I had to ask English speaking skiers for help. Now I know what black diamonds and moguls are. As someone from L.A., the only moguls I knew were in the film business!

I noticed there were a few things you made clearer for a non-German audience in your translation, especially some of the references to German and Czech history. How far do you think a translator has to go to explain a piece of literature readers might not understand? Is there a point at which you morph from a translator to a mediator?
I think the morphing to a mediator happens the moment you sit down and translate anything. There are many things about East German society that continues to be foreign to West Germans. So the question becomes how do you preserve in English the foreignness a German reader experiences without making it unreadable in English? As far as history goes, there are some things that needed to be made explicit for American audiences (this is the target audience). I don't think it's necessary to give a history lesson, but if I didn't explain certain historic realities which were directly related to the plot, the story wouldn’t make any sense at all.

I know you're a fan of Borges' idea of the "unfaithful original". How faithful is your translation - or how unfaithful is Unter Schnee to Snowed Under?
As I mentioned, Snowed Under is a very early piece. When Antje and I worked on it together, she had the chance to take another look at it, first as a seasoned writer (she had written four novels since then and countless short stories, essays, etc.) and secondly as a work that needed to be grasped by an American audience. We had a lot of fun changing things, rewriting, editing. Antje and I have worked on numerous projects together and see the translation process more as a collaborative effort towards a new version than a faithful rendering. But by working this way, it ends up being very faithful to the original.

There's one chapter in which you've worked with dialect. Tell us about that... Using dialect can be a touchy subject, can't it?
There were actually a couple of chapters where I played around with dialect. I've told you about the petty criminals, but there is also a man who speaks in a heavy Berlin dialect. I made him sound New Yorky without being specifically Brooklyn, Bronx, New Jersey, etc. I think this is a very tricky, if not risky thing to do, but we were very curious how far we could go in "Americanizing" the book, while keeping it true to its east European roots. Naturally such decisions are made easier (and easier to defend) with the author's blessing.

You write in your introduction that you worked in close collaboration with Antje, and she's a translator herself (of Joan Didion). How did you go about that - who had the last word? Did you ever come to blows?
Of course I had the last word!!!! But as you can tell, the work was absolutely collaborative and I don't think the translation would have been the same without Antje's input. There was one situation, for example, with a character called Frau Beran. She is a very old lady, lumbering, slow. My first draft gave her a too smooth and elegant voice. Antje was horrified. She wanted the old lady's language to be awkward and clumsy. As a translator this is a frightening proposition because it simply looks like a bad translation. For example, she wanted me to remove all contractions of verbs, and the chapter was filled with them. So every time Frau Beran said something like I can't, I won't, I don't, it became I cannot, I will not, I do not, etc. After a while, it makes you crazy. We came to a compromise, I took out 3/4 of the contractions and, indeed, Antje's suggestion gave her a very specific and unique voice.

What's the plan for the future - are you going to roll out the whole Antje Rávic Strubel phenomenon across the English-speaking world?
At the moment, I am working on Kältere Schichten der Luft for Red Hen Press (Colder Layers of Air). It will be the second book of Antje’s they are publishing. After that, I plan to translate Fremd Gehen, write a film script of it, and then translate it into a half billion dollar low-budget Hollywood movie.

Thanks again to Zaia - I look forward to the Oscars' ceremony, and in the meantime I really recommend reading Snowed Under.