Friday 31 July 2009

Rude, Lewd and Nude

I mentioned Polly McLean's exciting-sounding workshop on translating private parts not long ago. In fact, it tickled my fancy so much that I signed up for it.

If you're expecting raunchy revelations of linguistic heavy-breathing here you can stop reading right now - we translators aren't like that. Or at least we British translators aren't like that. It was all terribly civilised, with cups of tea and hardly anyone touching the biscuits. And few of the participants seemed to share my tourettical delight at uttering rude words in public. Polly gave the example of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach as a very English manner of writing about sex in "proper" literature - essentially by skirting around the issue.

Which, of course, makes it difficult for translators to render writers like Catherine Millet or for that matter Charlotte Roche in English. But it emerged that the difficulties are very different, depending on the source language. French - every Englishman's cliched idea of the ultimate erotic language - has erotic words, whereas English simply has rude ones. German, on the other hand, can sound rather brash on the ear with all its talk of tails, sheaths and hair of shame. Both languages have more room for ambiguity when describing sexual acts - washing the hands, stroking the what-have-you without posessive pronouns, while we poor Brits have to disentangle that sexy mass of limbs and apportion each body part to an owner.

There was much consideration of what to call private parts; hardly surpring, given the workshop title. Are certain words cliched, can we use the same rather shameful words we teach our children, to what extent is it a matter of personal choice? Translators from French face problems with the word sexe, which can be applied to both male and female genitalia (as with the German Geschlecht, although I don't see this term used overly often). Polly provided us with a carefully researched vocab list that I know I'll cherish for some time to come; indeed, it could prove so useful I might invest in a laminating machine.

Probably the most useful piece of advice, for me, was from French-English translator Ros Schwartz. Often enough when it comes to sex scenes, she told us, she simply doesn't understand what on earth her characters are getting up to (or down to) on the page. So she takes a step back from the source text and rewrites it in her own words, presumably with a healthy pinch of sexual imagination. In the end, she said, this re-write is usually pretty close to her end product.

Friday 24 July 2009

Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann

The Germanist Hans Eichner’s novel opens with a joke. A Jewish joke, to be precise. We leap from there to the Jewish habit of travelling, voluntarily or not, and then all the way to Buchenwald concentration camp, in a single page. A man as well-read as Eichner clearly wanted to let us know what we’re letting ourselves in for in Kahn & Engelmann – a humorous family tale, a partial portrait of Vienna’s exiled and murdered Jewry, a dark reckoning with German history and literature. Buchenwald is next to Weimar, not an hour away from Goethe’s former home. The author is not the first to ask how the road from Goethe and Schiller could lead to Auschwitz, but he does so in a very touching and fascinating way.

His narrator Peter Engelmann tells us he is a vet in Haifa, bathing poodles by day to walk on the beach in the evening. But he had a different life before that, as a university professor of German literature in Canada – like Eichner himself, although the novel is not strictly autobiographical. And before that he lived a bohemian life in London, and in between he was interned in Australia, and before that he was a young Jew in Vienna.

The family story starts in rural Hungary under Kaiser Franz-Josef, when a strong-willed girl decides to marry a shoemaker against her wealthy father’s will. We follow Sidonie and Jószef and their four children on the arduous journey to Vienna, and their rising and falling fortunes in the city. The Kahn & Engelmann of the title is the clothing store owned by the narrator’s uncle and father, a focal point of the book as he introduces letters between the two men, bickering over business matters until events take a dramatic turn.

This main body of the book is suffused with Jewish religious and cultural life, in the countryside and the city, explaining rituals and traditions – with a helpful glossary of Yiddish, Hebrew and German terms that I only discovered once I’d gobbled up most of the book. Despite the many arguments, family life seems warm and cosy like a sepia photograph. In fact, the narrator occasionally fetches photos and documents and living relatives out of his box of memories, and we know that at least some of the family will survive the Holocaust. He skips to and fro in time, an old man struggling to recall events, making his account even more likeable and quasi-authentic, if not easier to follow.

And then comes the Anschluss, and from here we follow Peter Engelmann into exile, his farce of a marriage and his eventual move to Israel. All this would be fairly standard stuff, though, a tale worth telling but one told a good few times before. That is, without Eichner’s (or Engelmann’s) perspective as a Germanist. The book is sprinkled with wonderfully anachronistic references to German literature, from Middle High German to the Classics to Modernism. His grandparents couldn’t possibly have read Kafka, we are told, as Kafka was only six when they moved to Vienna, but a parable from The Trial applies perfectly to their situation. And yet Engelmann makes a conscious decision to turn away from literature and work with his hands in Israel.

The story comes full circle from one loving description of a Jewish wedding to another. While I got a sense that Eichner was keen to explain Judaism to his original German readership, the narrator is not strictly a religious man. His allegiance is to the culture he grew up in above all else, with his love of German literature somehow surviving in the end. He comments:

A representative from Lodz goes through a shtetl –
There aren’t any shtetls anymore, where the Jews were crammed into a maze of tiny streets, studied the Talmud, had children and lived on thin air. Burnt to the ground, torn down, expropriated, the owners having died of thirst in cattle cars, or been murdered in Auschwitz, in Belsen, in Chelmno, in Majdanek, in Sobibor, in Treblinka – is it still possible to tell a Jewish joke that was originally in German? Maybe so.

The book itself is a beautiful piece of work. Canadian publishers Biblioasis have done what’s often considered unthinkable and credited the translator, Jean M. Snook, on the front cover – hats off for that. But hats off too to the seemingly faultless translation, with not a single stumbling block, glaring misunderstanding or unwitting germanism. It seems that the translator worked in close collaboration with the late author, and that has paid off marvellously.

I’d say this is a book that works well on two levels – as a family saga with the odd long moment, and as a delightful and thought-provoking read for lovers of German literature. Most of us will have asked ourselves the question Engelmann torments himself with – how can I love the books of a culture that killed so many? Here is one answer.

Peirene on the Bachmann Prize

Having neglected to write anything of note on the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for upcoming writers during my absence, please allow me to make up for it by linking to a charming account straight from the horse's mouth on the blog of the upcoming publishing company Peirene Press (scroll down a bit). I'm looking forward to Peirene's first book, F C Delius's Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, translated from German by Jamie Bulloch.

You can read Martin Chalmers' translation from the winning piece by Jens Petersen here (and a small amount of jiggery-pokery will take you to the other texts too).

Thursday 23 July 2009

New Jury for Leipzig Prize

I like to take an interest in who chooses the books that win awards, and the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair has just announced its new jury. The award is probably German literature's second most important for single titles after the German Book Prize, but goes further with categories for fiction, non-fiction and translation.

I like the look of the new wielders of power. Now chaired by Verena Auffermann (scroll down), they're a surprisingly youngish bunch. Or maybe I'm just old. There's my fave critic Ina Hartwig, the man with the impressive hair Volker Weidermann, plus Elmar Krekeler and Kristina Maidt-Zinke - both of whom have very resounding names, don't you agree?

The new kids on the block are Adam Soboczynski and Jens Bisky. You can read an extract from Soboczynski's latest book The Art of Parting Gently with Female Admirers on Litrix (trans. Zaia Alexander). He's a bit of a cosmopolitan, hailing from Poland and studying in Bonn, Berkeley and Saint Andrews. And he's younger than me!

And Bisky has my admiration (female or not) for pissing off Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Bisky revealed the name of the anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin after Enzensberger published it, as the Guardian reported. Bisky felt the book should be judged as a work of history and so we need to know who wrote it to treat it as a reliable source. Of course Enzensberger republished it after her death, as she had prohibited publication during her lifetime. Which kind of makes both of them look pretty shabby if you ask me. Incidentally, City-Lit Berlin should include a passage from the book itself, in case you want a taster before you go whole hog and buy the translation. Just to get a quick plug in there.

So we can expect a bumper crop of resoundingly named, well-coiffed, irreverent and cosmopolitan young winners at Leipzig next year. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

European Union Prize for Literature to Paulus Hochgatterer

Things are rather slow around here; the city's train system has collapsed and everyone's on holiday. I keep getting replies to emails that say: 'I'll be away from my desk until the end of September. My emails will not be forwarded.'

My reactions are equally sluggish, so it may be no news to you that Paulus Hochgatterer's Die Süße des Lebens won one of twelve newly created awards under the title of the European Union Prize for Literature. Funnily enough, one of the members of the Austrian jury is the book's publisher.

Maybe they should pit the twelve books against each other in a huge Eurovision-style extravaganza, inevitably to be won by Ireland, which then has to host next year's very expensive gala and so submits a weaker number next year. In fact, the Irish winner Karen Gillece has already been described as "no one-hit wonder", unlike good old Jonny Logan. Of course they'd have to get all twelve books translated into eleven different languages first though, which would be a great way to "put the spotlight on the creativity and diverse wealth of Europe’s contemporary literature in the field of fiction, to promote the circulation of literature within Europe and encourage greater interest in non-national literary works", as is the award's objective.

You can get Jamie Bulloch's translation of the Austrian winner, The Sweetness of Life, from MacLehose Press. It's a psychological thriller set in the Alps, written by a psychologist and writer.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Navid Kermani, Wer ist Wir?

Researching this piece, I’m astounded to find that although Navid Kermani is present pretty much all over the English-language web, not one of his books has been translated into English.* You can read his essays on cultural identity in the “Islamic world”, literature itself, a sample translation from his short story collection Vierzig Leben, and so on and so forth. He’s published 16 books, as far as I can tell, from scholarly works on Islam to fiction to the secret of Neil Young’s effect on colic to a children’s book about a lonely little Iranian girl in Germany.

Kermani, a German-Iranian, recently hit the headlines when he was nominated for an award for cultural dialogue but rapidly dropped when his Christian co-nominees objected. His fellow Islam scholar – and holder of this year’s August Wilhelm von Schlegel Visiting Professorship in Poetics of Translation – Stefan Weidner comments on the issue at qantara. As various people have noted concerning the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini, Germany has yet to wake up to Muslim sensibilities. And perhaps this book is at least one step along that path.

Wer ist Wir? (Who is We?) is subtitled “Germany and its Muslims”. Unlike many other books on the subject, it’s actually written by a Muslim. And not a Muslim who has turned their back on their faith for whatever reason but someone who knows what he’s talking about and sees himself as a representative of his own religion. As the title suggests, Kermani regards Muslims as part of Germany rather than some kind of alien entity that descended on the country with the first “guest worker” agreement with Turkey – a logical enough standpoint really.

The book covers a lot of ground – Kermani’s own experiences as a child of Iranian doctors in small-town Germany, the middle-class rediscovery of religious identity in Egypt, India and Europe, actual progress in Germany on the cultural front, Islamist terrorism of the imported and home-grown varieties, the Qur’an and violence, whether “Islam” can be integrated into European societies, his experiences of the German Islam Conference. And what most interested me, his own personal manifesto of diversity, entitled “In Praise of Difference”.

The tone varies – obviously the Islam scholar in him comes to the fore when it comes to Qur’an exegesis, while the stories from Cologne’s schoolyards are very personal. But throughout, the author’s voice is very strong. This is far removed from a scholarly work or even impersonal German-style journalism, and as such is a very enjoyable read, aside from being very informative.

Without ever descending into embarrassing “I just love all cultures” hippydom, Kermani celebrates diversity in Europe. He points out that Germany’s Muslim cultures are very different to those in Britain or France, as the largely Turkish population they consist of originally came from undereducated backgrounds rather than colonial elites. He sings the praises of increasing acceptance – not tolerance – of Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Germany.

People who marry into other cultures are now rarely ostracised as they were in previous generations, and he himself is now rarely asked when he’ll be “moving back home”. (Incidentally, I was asked while pregnant whether I’d be going “back home” to give birth. I laughed and assumed the official who asked me had never been treated on the NHS.) And despite the small but headline-hitting campaign against a large and visible new mosque in Cologne, Kermani writes, the support at grassroots level was actually overwhelming. Immigration, he says, is always a challenge for societies, but in his eyes Germany has dealt with it well – considering.

Considering, that is, that the country had what he calls a “non-integration policy” under Kohl and his predecessors, actually paying people to repatriate. And considering that many people on the left reacted by unquestioningly embracing everything foreign – perhaps also trying to make up for their fathers’ and grandfathers’ sins?

Many of the experiences Kermani describes were familiar to me – that feeling of repulsion when people mouth off about foreigners and then say, “Oh, I don’t mean you!” – automatically putting you into the “good immigrant” pigeonhole. The anger that our children will have to decide whether to be German or Iranian (or British, or Turkish, or Vietnamese…) at the age of 18. The idea that Heimat is much more complicated than choosing one country over another. The sheer bewilderment over many Germans’ belief that cultures are like soap bubbles that will burst if they ever come into contact with one another.

His solution, which I’m not sure I share, is to plump for Europe, with all its cultural and political achievements. What he calls a secular, trans-national, multi-religious and multi-ethnic voluntary community, which extends beyond its own geographical borders – realising, of course, that this is a utopia. Yet he writes that the promise of belonging to Europe was a driving force for the states in the south and east to shake off dictatorship twenty years ago. And he hopes this same promise might have a similar reforming effect on Turkey and other countries.

Wer ist Wir? is very much a German book and so is unlikely to be translated. But if you do read German, it has a lot to offer in terms of understanding how Europe deals with its Muslims and how Muslims deal with Europe.

*Update: According to Kermani's website, his non-fiction title The Terror of God will be published in English by Polity Press.

Monday 13 July 2009

Culled from Other Blogs

My illustrious colleague Isabel Bogdan on watching Die Vorleser being recorded. She doesn't mention whether she was sporting her handsome love german books badge, so I suspect not.*

Another illustrious colleague, Susan Bernofsky, on translating Walser and others.

A blog dedicated to the upcoming publication The Wall in My Head - one of the more sensible literary reactions to twenty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

My wise and wonderful co-editor Heather Reyes on wrapping up City-Lit Berlin.

Lewd Rude and Nude: on translating private parts. A workshop.

*She was!

Friday 10 July 2009

German Books On TV

If, unlike me, you have a working television set right now and can pick up German channels, you could tune in to the latest effort to bring literature to the small screen on ZDF tonight.

Blatantly cashing in on Schlink's bestseller, the show is called "Die Vorleser" and features a new team: sexy but arrogant Ijoma Mangold from Die Zeit - touted as "young" and "wild" but looking good in a well-cut suit nevertheless - and Amelie Fried, an experienced presenter and writer who I don't actually know, but who looks very mumsy and should therefore appeal to the book-buying Brigitte-reading demographic.

ZDF had to rethink its literature programming after kicking out Elke Heidenreich for being rude about the channel. She now does her show on the lovely litcolony website.

The programme pledges to inject some debate into the "books on TV" format, and it seems the two presenters do get into a bit of banter over books on the show. Which is a slightly less authoritarian approach than the "presenter holds book up to camera and orders viewers to read it" scheme adopted in the past. It remains to be seen whether Ijoma and Amelie will become Germany's Richard and Judy though...

Friday 3 July 2009

Ligging With Grass

We interrupt this interruption to bring you all the latest from a whole new world - for me - the community of Günter Grass fans, followers and favourites.

Last night was the long-awaited Grass reading at the LCB, celebrating fifty years of his phenomenal debut novel The Tin Drum - along with three of his translators, Breon Mitchell, Per Öhrgaard (Danish) und Oili Suominen (Finnish). You should be able to listen to the event on Deutschlandfunk on the last Saturday in July. The weather was gorgeous, absolutely perfect for a trip out to the Wannsee, and about 5000 people agreed with me. I blagged a seat a long way from the stage and craned my neck. But it was worth it.

Grass read three passages from the novel. Now what with my puerile rebellious streak, I don't usually have a lot of time for Günter Grass. But the reading reminded me that The Tin Drum must have been the first German adult novel I read, at the age of 17, presumably in Ralph Mannheim's translation. And it also called to mind how incredibly fresh and exciting the book still is, half a century after its publication. This is great story-telling, beautiful and angry writing that kicks over the statues of cosy economic miracle-era West Germany, and is rightly celebrated as a groundbreaking piece of literature.

The translators each read a passage of their own new versions, and I can hardly say how thrilled I was by Breon Mitchell's rendering. All those great words! I'm told he's in the closing stages of his translation - and I know I for one am going to read it as soon as it comes out. Although Mitchell defended his good friend Mannheim, citing the circumstances at the time and the fact that it's a heck of a difficult book, he didn't pull any punches about the quality of the existing translation - like a good many translators at the time, Mannheim thought he'd better simplify this young upstart's novel, slashing the sentences, skipping bits and generally translating in a way that's just not acceptable any more. Plus, translators today have many more resources at their fingertips than they did fifty years ago.

All the translators and Grass's charming editor Helmut Frielinghaus talked about the legendary meetings held with the author. I suspect Grass may possibly be a tiny bit of a diva, and there was an atmosphere of awe surrounding these meetings. The translators put their questions to him - no question is too banal - and he answers them by either explaining what he meant or by telling them to make something up. The Tin Drum meeting was held in Gdansk, and Per Öhrgaard's eyes went glossy as he recalled going into a church with the writer and the whole congregation whispering "Günter Grass, Günter Grass". Actually I made that bit up about the tears in his eyes - I could only see the back of his head from where I was sitting.

My favourite part of the event was of course when the moderator Denis "completely choochie" Scheck asked the translators how readers in their countries had reacted to the revelation of Grass's "membership of the Waffen-SS". The man himself leaped in and insisted on correcting Scheck: no, he wasn't a member, he was conscripted like 100,000 other young men. Scheck smiled and stood corrected. Apparently though, the whole issue has been a storm in a teacup outside of Germany.

And then it was over. And then came the whole new world. Once the photos had been taken and the autographs signed, the Grass community convened on the terrace. I somehow got swept along and even got a piece of Tin Drum birthday cake - which was absolutely delicious, with not an eel or a potato in sight. What can I say? Mr. Grass has a large number of acolytes, almost all of them male. Or perhaps that's too rude - perhaps it would be better to say that Günter Grass is his own mini-branch of the literary industry, generating enough work for a good few editors, critics, translators, PAs, hairdressers and cake-makers. A little like a small planet with many satellites. But a planet well worth exploring.