Tuesday 29 September 2009

British Reading Tastes Turn to Germany (?)

It's not available directly online, but Malcolm Burgess of Oxygen Books has written an enthusiastic article on German writing in Britain for The Bookseller, and posted it at the City-Lit Café. On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Malcolm asks: will Europe’s biggest nation and most significant historical player now get the attention from readers and publishers it arguably deserves?

The answer: it will if I have any say in the matter.

Monday 28 September 2009

Germany's New International Literature Award

I'm not sure whether it's a cock-up or not, but the winners of the brand new International Literature Award have been announced prior to the ceremony on Wednesday: Daniel Alarcón and the very talented and very wonderful Friederike Meltendorf. The news is not on the website but is is up on the trade site Börsenblatt. And the Literary Saloon has a comparison between the new German award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, its closest contemporary in the English-speaking world.

Congratulations! Friederike gets € 10,000 and the Peruvian-American author gets € 15,000 for the novel Lost City Radio.

Friday 25 September 2009

Swiss Book Prize Nominations

Five writers have been nominated for this year's Swiss Book Prize, worth 60,000 franks.

They are:

Eleonore Frey - Muster aus Hans, Droschl Literaturverlag

Jürg Laederach - Depeschen nach Mailland, Suhrkamp Verlag

Angelika Overath - Flughafenfische, Luchterhand Literaturverlag

Ilma Rakusa - Mehr Meer, Droschl Literaturverlag

Urs Widmer - Herr Adamson, Diogenes Verlag.

The prize was created last year and judged a roaring success, going to the booksellers' favourite Rolf Lappert for Nach Hause schwimmen. Again, I apologise on behalf of the German/Austrian publishing industry for the lack of English information behind three of these links. In case you're wondering, I'm rooting for Ilma Rakusa.

The winner will be announced on 15 November.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Norbert Zähringer, Einer von vielen

Norbert Zähringer is one of those writers often described as “underestimated”. He was estimated highly enough for the German Book Prize longlist, but didn’t make it to the final six. But I found his book one of the most intriguing of the full twenty candidates and read the whole thing, initially for work reasons but getting sucked in more and more by the hour. In fact, by a strange twist of postal fate, I have two copies of Einer von vielen. So if you’d like one, let me know via the comments section below. First come, first served.

Oh, and it’s worth it. The book is a love song to the movies, called “Pynchon-esque” by the critics. The title means “One of Many”, partly no doubt in reference to the fact that there are a hell of a lot of characters in here. It’s a veritable Ben Hur of a book in fact, but in Zähringer’s case it’s the extras he focuses on rather than the stars. Very kindly, he provides us with a hand-written map of the names: I count 77, but I may be wrong.

The novel opens with a prologue, in which we meet Edison Frimm as an old man and watch him failing to commit suicide during a minor earthquake in California. And then the book kicks off for real with Frimm’s birth under a German table in the Mojave desert. At the same time, Siegfried Heinze is born in Berlin, bedded down on a pile of banknotes, his supposed father murdered the very same night. The date is significant: 1 September 1923, when the newspapers reported on the first talking film and another earthquake destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama.

From here on, we follow Eddie Frimm, the Berlin detective Mauser charged with investigating the Heinze case, his exiled Armenian-Georgian-German neighbour Bebo Globodajarian, and a whole host of other people whose paths criss-cross in Los Angeles and Berlin, essentially from the thirties to the end of the war. In between, an unnamed first-person narrator chips in with tales of a Berlin bar and its regulars in 1993. One starts to wonder what on earth they’re doing there, but it’s worth trusting in the book’s structure – despite the many, many strands, all will come together in the end.

Frimm lands up working as an extra and odd-job boy on Hollywood B-movies, seeing the seamier side of the stars but falling in love with an actress who failed to make the leap from silent films to the talkies. When America joins the war he is put into the army’s Motion Picture Unit. But after a number of staged flights over the Shetlands, another team hits the movie theatres and his crew is abandoned to actual service. His character is probably the subtlest in a book that by necessity works with broad brushstrokes. He never knows quite what he wants, always needs a director telling him what to do – be it his beloved mother or Koga, a Japanese gardener, or Bebo, or in the end a pair of German boys on a lonely bridge.

Meanwhile Mauser acts out his very own film noir, chasing a mass-murderer in Berlin. True to the genre, he’s a hero who gets his hands dirty, warning his Jewish boss to leave the country before a raid and frequenting dens of iniquity. But there is more depth to him; after watching on as one Jewish boy is taken away, he intervenes on a later occasion to save a life, putting his own at risk. Mauser does track down the killer in the end, but among all the death and barbarity of the Nazi state and its war, his own personal M. is of little concern.

Our post-Berlin Wall band of men is signed up as extras too, tying up a few key loose ends but serving more, I felt, as a counterweight to all this history. These sections are more like the young German writing readers may be familiar with – a whimsical story rich in atmosphere but low on action. As such, I found they give the book an added dimension, making it more than a beautifully constructed historical blockbuster.

I love Zähringer’s humour. There are farcical elements, such as Mauser having to put up a series of barriers in Berlin’s sewers to protect the Führer from underground attack. There is wry humour, with the other men on Frimm’s air force base playing poker for a spot on the movie plane. There are games of “spot the film star” hidden in the text for added fun. There are characters so odd they are funny. And above all, the moments when the countless riddles are solved made me laugh out loud. There are dark moments too, times of war and disaster movingly portrayed with a breathlessness I hadn’t expected.

And Zähringer is one of those few German writers whose horizons include “ethnic” characters. Bebo leaves Nazi Germany on a ship loaded with Jewish refugees, works selling hotdogs in LA, only to be shot down over Berlin and barely escape a Soviet camp. Koga is another character in a far-off country, interned during the war. And in the 1990s Zähringer gives us Yusuf, a Turkish West Berliner obsessed with Willy Brandt, who ends up an extra playing an East German “encouraging” the fall of the Wall. His previous novel Als ich schief was not dissimilar in that respect, reflecting a more diverse Germany than many writers seem to perceive. And it too played with the power of coincidence.

I’m finding it hard to explain the book and my enthusiasm for it, I have to admit. It has light and darkness, is intelligent but doesn’t require a PhD to enjoy it. And it’s a darned shame it didn’t make the shortlist – because it would work perfectly in English too.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Looking Forward to International Translation Day

30 September is International Translation Day, chosen for the patron saint of translators, Saint Jerome, who translated the Hebrew bible directly into Latin and wrote a number of commentaries explaining his translation choices.

Thankfully for all those of us with slightly broader interests, Germany's literary translators' association, the VdÜ, is organising a whole host of events to mark the day and raise the profile of translated literature and the fantastic people behind it. There will be readings galore in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Freiburg, Cologne, Leipzig and Winterthur/Switzerland. For the very long list, see the VdÜ's website.

As far as I can tell from a very brief web search, this is a pretty unique way to celebrate the occasion, with nothing like it in Britain or the States (where translators are of course fewer and farther between). I'd like to imagine London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow flooded with culture vultures flitting between translator-led events on 30 September, perhaps ferried to and fro by a shuttle bus. A series of translators would work up on top of that column on Trafalgar Square for the day, with their translations evolving in real-time and beamed onto the facade of the National Gallery for all to see. Bookshops would arrange all their many translated titles in beautiful special displays. Children would tell their impressed parents: "When I grow up I want to be a translator. Please sign me up for extra foreign-language lessons."

Ah well, maybe next year.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Dan Brown in English/Dan Brown in German

It seems the Germans have bought so many copies of the new Dan Brown - in English - that it's soared to number two in the fiction charts. This is an odd phenomenon but not the first time it's happened, with various Harry Potter books following the same pattern. It seems to be generally considered better to go for the original of easy-reading top-sellers like this, as you have a time advantage AND you can show off about your fantastic English skills. In fact I was recently annoyed at a party by someone telling me how many times he'd read The Lord of the Rings in English - five times - and in German - only four.

A lot of even small bookshops have a tiny section of English books hidden away in a corner, usually an unimaginative selection of film tie-ins, chick-lit and thrillers.

The German Dan Brown translation entitled Das verlorene Symbol comes out precisely 29 days after the original, raising a couple of questions - like how on earth did they do that so quickly? The publishers are revealing all on a special website, which includes this video about the translation process. To sum up, there are six translators and they have ten days to translate a total of 780 pages. They got the manuscript and got stuck in without reading the book beforehand. And they start work at six in the morning. Amazingly, the two you see in the video look fairly unflustered.

But by 14 October when the end product comes out, anyone who is anyone will have read the original anyway, so why bother investing time in a good translation?

Friday 18 September 2009

Beautiful Brochures and Alternative Shortlists

So I finally got my hands on the brochure to accompany the German Book Prize longlist, long overdue. And it's beautiful. Last year's brochure looked like a trade fair leaflet - a generic couple sitting on a bench with blue skies behind them, cheap paper, unimaginative layout. The content, of course, was fine stuff, but you kind of had to get past the appearances first. Now it's a really sexy little book, smaller pages so it weighs heavier in your hand, a plain black cover with a window onto the logo, a classy typeface. Ach!

And the content! You know those dull author portraits you get on the programme at readings or at the back of books? Born in Zurich in 1967, the author studied art history and wrote her first novel at the age of 24. She now lives in Berlin with her family. Well there's none of that here. The lovely Wolfgang Schneider and Holger Heimann have put together witty mini-biographies to front the extracts, plus you get an introduction by Schneider, an interview with a former judge, a piece by the writer Georg M. Oswald and a charmingly gossipy "Why didn't my book win?" article by the publisher Jochen Jung. The extracts are shorter than the mammoth sections available online - which is a good thing, believe you me. And they're also more representative of the books themselves rather than simply chucking the first chapter or two at the reader. Many thanks to KMS for making me get off my backside and get hold of it. If you can, do.

Of course now that the shortlist is out the world will forget all about the longlist, save for a few stickers on covers and forlorn displays in bookshops. The critics at Die Welt, meanwhile, have put together their own alternative shortlists for the book of the year. There are some great titles here: Kehlmann's Ruhm of course, but also Thomas Klupp's Paradiso, Thomas von Steinaecker's Schutzgebiet, Julia Schoch's Mit der Geschwindigkeit des Sommers, and many more. In fact many of the writers highlighted here are younger than the newspaper's target demographic by a long shot.

Thursday 17 September 2009

A Berlin Photo Diary

The Wall in My Head website offers a rather eclectic selection of writing about the fall of the Iron Curtain twenty years ago, building up to the release of the book of the same name. Now they have a rather touching look at events in Berlin through the eyes and the camera of the then very young Bill Martin. The pictures are strangely evocative, capturing a number of important moments. And yet they don't look all that different to many corners of present-day Berlin, reminding us that twenty years isn't all that long after all.

Wednesday 16 September 2009


The German Book Prize shortlist is out. And here it is:

• Rainer Merkel: Lichtjahre entfernt (S. Fischer, March 2009)

• Herta Müller: Atemschaukel (Hanser, August 2009)

• Norbert Scheuer: Überm Rauschen (C. H. Beck, June 2009)

• Kathrin Schmidt: Du stirbst nicht (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, February 2009)

• Clemens J. Setz: Die Frequenzen (Residenz, February 2009)

• Stephan Thome: Grenzgang (Suhrkamp, August 2009).

I'm rather surprised, and there are a couple of books here I wouldn't even want to read more of, let alone want them to win. But who's asking me? I'm sorry to say only half of the links above are in English. Perhaps the publishers themselves don't hold the translation rights, perhaps they're just a bit slow or really big pdf fans. If it was up to me I'd have gone to the trouble of translating a wee blurb about the books into English the moment a book made it to the longlist - but hey, I'm not in publishing. Residenz Verlag, however, gets a gold star for flagging up Clemens J. Setz's novel as shortlisted only 10 minutes after the announcement.

The winner will be announced on 12 October. Sample translations should be available online somewhere or other in the next few days; I'll let you know.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Susan Bernofsky on... Yoko Tawada

Honestly, the German-English translator Susan Bernofsky has so many interesting things to say I could probably devote an entire blog to her - only it might make me feel rather bitter and twisted after a while.

Two Words (the blog of the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco) has an insightful interview with her about translating the German/Japanese writer Yoko Tawada. I like this bit, praise indeed: "Nothing makes me happier as a translator than when people talk about the different authors I translate sounding different from one another."

Sunday 13 September 2009

My Take on the Longlist (Again)

I’m taking a deep breath, ready to share my biased opinions on all twenty extracts from the German Book Prize longlist. It was a long hard slog, but someone had to do it.

First of all, there were a couple of things that jumped out at me. A lot of the books had some kind of US connection, as if the judges thought that might help sell translation rights. And a good number of them featured dysfunctional or collapsing relationships, as if the judges were having a hard time themselves. Plus there were a couple of “desperate housewives” – in the conventional sense – women stranded in godawful situations with their kids. Maybe that’s to do with the book-buying demographic. And there's a good handful of murders.

But I’ll just start off with

Sibylle Berg – Der Mann schläft
This is the one everyone was surprised about, as Sibylle Berg is a tad chick-litty at times. The extract reads like a cross between slam prose – first-person narrator, witty, open – and a catastrophe account. But you really want to find out what happened to the forty-something narrator whose man goes missing in China. I loved the searing in-between account of a single woman realising her collateral is rapidly dwindling – but it might not be a good gift for your single girlfriends…
US link? No, but China – nice and topical.
Dysfunctional relationship? Oh, yes.
Murder? Perhaps.
Sample sentence: “Men are not masters of civil courage, and I often had the impression they’d prefer it if an older woman with whom they had begun a relationship without thinking would just die with as little upheaval as possible, as then they could let themselves be consoled.”

Mirko Bonné – Wie wir verschwinden
I know Bonné as a poet, and you can tell. His prose is really drenched in detail and seems excellent. The novel is about an old man looking back at his youth in a French village in the 1950s, with the death of Albert Camus playing a pivotal role. Reflective, precise, building up to a climax – I like it.
US link? No, but France.
Dysfunctional relationship? Not sure.
Murder? Possibly.
Sample sentence: “Roger Patache grimaced every now and then – the song playing on the transistor radio reminded him of Yves Montand in Wages of Fear, and even though he was only transporting tree trunks he could identify with the nitro-glycerine driver in the film.”

Thomas Glavinic – Das Leben der Wünsche
I’m a little ambivalent about this one. Like in Night Work, Glavinic starts with a simple “What if…?” and develops a fantastic story. This time a man is granted his every wish but lives to regret it. The protagonist is similarly dull to the previous one, with a suspicious amount in common. I fear it’s another short story drawn out to novel length. Nicely written though.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yup.
Murder? Sort of.
Sample sentence: “I wish all my wishes come true. That’s my first wish, and the other two don’t matter any more, you can have them.”

Wolf Haas – Der Brenner und der liebe Gott
The extract is short but very sweet. An ultra-charismatic detective (making his seventh appearance – he died in the last book…) with a motormouth to match. Great stuff!
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Oh, yes.
Murder? Yes.
Sample sentence: “My grandmother used to tell me, when you die they’ll have to club your gob to death separately.”

Ernst-Wilhelm Händler – Welt aus Glas
What on earth is this all about? Is Händler playing with clichés? Is this Ian Fleming meets Stephenie Meyer? It’s certainly very more-ish, with a kidnapping in Mexico and art dealing in Milan. I assume there is some kind of outlandish plot behind it too. I liked the writing and found a lot of good observations. Plus cover design by Neo Rauch, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Very probably.
Murder? Anything's possible.
Sample sentence: “Jillian felt comfortable next to the gaping jaws of hell.” / “His skin was rather dark but his face had nothing of an Indio about it, it was the face of a Spaniard.”

Anna Katharina Hahn – Kürzere Tage
I’d been resisting reading this book. The critics love it but I had enough of being a stay-at-home mother some time ago and I didn’t want to read a whole book about it, thank you very much. It turns out I was wrong. Oh my God: fantastic writing, really angry and painful, sometimes prompting a wry laugh. Don’t give it to anyone who sends their kids to Steiner schools. Or actually, maybe you should.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? Probably not.
Sample sentence: “She’d had a poster of her on her wardrobe in Hackstraße, in a bright red dress with her breasts and pubes shining through like a slap in the face.”

Reinhard Jirgl – Die Stille
I found this hard-going but worth persevering. The language puts up a few hurdles with its strange shorthand. A sardonic old man recounts his family history, based around 100 photographs. Witty, opinionated, rambling, good solid stuff. Perhaps one of those epics of German history the judges tend to like so much.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? Nazis, I expect.
Sample sentence: “She uttered the latter, almost like a triumf, with the expertise with which old=l-only women are present at every must-attend funeral in the ceremonial hall at the cemetery, prefer-ably at Catholic burials (as they promise the most complicated ceremony) & take part in the rituals of this act routinely with downright sporting ambition, by always being the 1st on the margins of the motley congregation to perform the sittingup&down, the headbowing&handfolding and all other bodily crochet during the ritual grief like a mistress of ceremonies every ½-hour.”

Brigitte Kronauer – Zwei schwarze Jäger
The extract is very, very funny. An author reads at a disastrous event in a small town known only as W. Such great characterisation! Apparently it’s a complicated story with a murderer hidden away somewhere inside it. I thought it was a bit like Kehlmann’s Ruhm – for grown-ups.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Very possibly.
Murder? Yes.
Sample sentence: “It’s my reading group tonight. They’re talking about my favourite writer, Carlos Heller. Now that’s a really wonderful author! And who can’t go because her husband failed to coordinate the dates? Me!”

Rainer Merkel – Lichtjahre entfernt
In this case, I read the whole book. I hated it all the way through, then woke up in the middle of the night, had an epiphany, and loved it. Complex psychological stuff set mainly in the USA. The kind of confusing writing I really enjoy, an incredibly dysfunctional relationship and the world’s most irritating man. Really worth reading to the last page.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? No, but you can't have everything.
Sample sentence: “The uniformly browned skin of the actresses in the porno I watch with Judith makes the woman look like desert women to me, inhabitants of the desert who have somehow ended up in the film, the sun’s rays distributed uniformly over their short, supple bodies.”

Terézia Mora – Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent
Probably the one I was most looking forward to, and I wasn’t disappointed. A loveable, happy-go-lucky IT man in his mid-forties gradually loses control. You’re not quite sure his company even exists, at times. A beautifully captured snapshot of business and personal life in a time of crisis – very now. What a hero - and it’s scarily good.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? Don't think so.
Sample sentence: “By the time that was over, the cappuccino drunk – a sweet layer of foam always lines the bottom of the cup, you could just leave it but Kopp doesn’t leave it, he spoons it up, if he’s got a spoon, this time he hasn’t, he’d forgotten to take one, he made do with his index finger, holding the cup upside down over his mouth until there was nothing more to be had – when the laptop was then booted up and the email program opened, by the time it was finally clear that no news of interest had come about during the past two hours, so he could have started work, Kopp’s good mood had evaporated.”

Herta Müller – Atemschaukel
Beautiful writing, moving material, incredibly impressive. The life of an ethnic German man in Romania, where Müller herself comes from, based on conversations with the recently deceased poet Oskar Pastior, among others. Some critics are upset that she’s been too poetic in her descriptions of Stalinist repression and persecution. But then why bother writing fiction in the first place?
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? No.
Murder? Stalin. Romania.
Sample sentence: “We arrived separately; the box office woman in the lead-glass of her box, the mirroring stone floor, the round central column, the wall tiles with their water lily pattern, the carved wooden stairs weren’t to suspect that we had arranged to meet.”

Angelika Overath – Flughafenfische
The sample is rather like a character study, in which very little happens. Well written of course but rather odd and didn’t really work up my appetite. Strangers meet at an airport and tell their stories, not listening to each other.
US link? Well, it’s set in an airport.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yup.
Murder? Don't think so.
Sample sentence: “(Whenever the manta clung to the glass like that some child or other soon started screaming.)”

Norbert Scheuer – Überm Rauschen
This is a book about fishing. I can’t possibly like it. A man looks back on his childhood, while fishing. The sample doesn’t seem particularly distinguished, or at least has few distinguishing characteristics – but the language is nice.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Possibly.
Murder? No. Unless you're a vegetarian.
Sample sentence: “and over and over, cassettes labelled: Bar – the only sounds a muddle of voices and the murmurs of bank notes, mumblings of drunkards, sounds of table football, the creaking toilet door, throat-clearing, coughing, whispering, yelling, jukebox songs;”

Kathrin Schmidt – Du stirbst nicht
I found this very impressive. A woman wakes up in hospital and we follow her struggle to remember – first words, then people, then her life. The writing is marvellously disjointed, the character wonderfully intelligent – a writer, what else? Absolutely heart-tugging stuff.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? No.
Sample sentence: “When Helene closes her eyes she sees a little face with slits for eyes and a mischievous grin. Does she love it? Yes she does! Now her heart tugs. She has to ask Matthes, she mustn’t forget.”

Clemens J. Setz – Die Frequenzen
Adjectives. Clemens J. Setz is not afraid of adjectives. This is “young Austrian literature”, but I can’t say I cared a jot about the characters. Apparently it’s a complicated relationship story that comes to a head, you know the kind of thing.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? No.
Sample sentence: “Nothing happened for a few seconds, then a roaring, dirt-encrusted hole opened up in the bowl and enabled a brief glimpse of the sleepers flicking darkly past under the train; at least it seemed so to Walter.”

Peter Stamm – Sieben Jahre
Very possibly another “man’s book”. A man is caught between a beautiful, intelligent woman who leaves him cold and a weird, dumb Polish woman who ends up pregnant. I personally have had enough of “dumm fickt gut” plain-talking macho intellectual literature, which is what this seems to be from the sample. And Rainer Merkel dealt with the whole subject better too.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Oh yes.
Murder? No.
Sample sentence: “The woman put her glass down on the table and laid the paper tissues and the book next to it, a romance with a brightly coloured cover showing a man and a woman on a horse before a stormy sky.”

Thomas Stangl – Was kommt
This one ticks a lot of boxes, but it’s genuinely good. An old woman remembers her privileged life in 1937 Vienna. And a teenage boy also lives with his grandmother in the late 1970s. Beautiful language, playing with tenses and time, ghosts and repetitions, eroticism. I like it. I don’t get it but I like it.
US link? No. But it’s set in pre-Nazi Vienna, for God’s sake.
Dysfunctional relationship? No idea.
Murder? No, apart from what you might expect.
Sample sentence: “Emilia Degen emerges on a spring day in 1937, the smell in her room differs from the smells of the city; the objects announce their scent, you can enjoy being a stranger in your own body.”

Stephan Thome – Grenzgang
A sad depiction of the hell of village life for a divorced woman chained to her senile mother and troublesome teenage son. And a failed teacher too. Probably very insightful, and it seems the plot might be quite interesting too.
US link? No.
Dysfunctional relationship? Yes.
Murder? Don't think so.
Sample sentence: “Mrs. Preiss’ gaze has lost something of its smile at the edges and indicates to Kerstin that the wife of the owner of Preiss Ladies’ Underwear & Lingerie does not ask for a reduction at the supermarket till.”

David Wagner – Vier Äpfel
This is all rather odd, and rather charming. I know David Wagner for his solid prose and observations, and here he goes very much into detail – about a trip to the supermarket. It seems almost like a playful attempt to document the present day for future historians – with entertainingly rambling footnotes. It’s fun, and I have no idea whether a plot emerges at any point.
US link? Shouldn’t think so.
Dysfunctional relationship? Probably.
Murder? Doubt it.
Sample sentence: “7. Frozen raspberries, which L. sometimes used to buy to heat up and pour over ice cream, often come out of their cardboard packaging in crumbs, which then looks as if they had been stuck together out of globules. They are reminiscent of the models of complex molecules, also mounted together out of globules, that gathered dust on top of the cupboards in the chemistry lab during my schooldays.”

Norbert Zähringer – Einer von vielen
Now this looks promising. It looks like an American-style novel where strands and characters come together across continents. Two boys are born on the same day, one in the Mojave desert, one in Berlin. And a crime is committed, which I suspect we’ll have to wait a while to have solved. Lots and lots and lots of characters - Nazis, Schwarzenegger, war veterans: nice.
US link? Yes.
Dysfunctional relationship? Several.
Murder? Yes.
Sample sentence: “That was how Edison Frimm came into the world: one morning in September 1923 under a German oak table, during an earthquake with a magnitude of four point five, just under a hundred miles north of Los Angeles and about two miles west of the San Andreas Fault, which divided the North American Plate from the Pacific Plate here in the Mojave desert.”

If it was the lovegermanbooks German Book Prize? I’d shortlist Anna Katharina Hahn, Brigitte Kronauer, Rainer Merkel, Terézia Mora, Herta Müller and Thomas Stangl. But then again…

Friday 11 September 2009

Berlin Tales - The Evidence

The launch event was rather good, if I do say so myself. Look who chaired the evening's entertainment (unfortunately my favourite shoes aren't in the pictures).

Hotlist Hots Up

This is so funny. Remember the independent publishers' hotlist - 20 books as an answer to the German Book Prize longlist (seeing as it was made up entirely of titles from "major labels")? Everyone else has got completely hot under the collar about the whole thing, in a huge long foot-stomping tantrum of "Why wasn't I invited? It's not fair!" Turns out the whole thing, in case you hadn't guessed, was a case of small publishers calling each other up and choosing one of their books each until they got to number 20.

Now there's a €5000 prize attached to it too from a bookstore chain, with three newspapers helping to sponsor it as well - and Denis "the pooch" Scheck will be presenting the awards ceremony on 16 October in Frankfurt. I wish I could go. I wish I was invited, but I couldn't go anyway.

But I can vote - from 16 September at www.hotlist2009.de. Hooray!

Thursday 10 September 2009

international literature festival berlin

I have been uncharacteristically silent. That's because I'm immersed in the German Book Prize longlist, but the end is in sight. As long as the international literature festival berlin doesn't distract me too much, that is.

They've had a charming idea - Berliners can adopt an author and show them around the city. A friend has been allocated a British writer, and I'm intrigued at how it'll go.

Otherwise it's eleven days of writers, writers, writers all over the shop. The focus is on Arab literatures, often introduced by prominent translators like Stefan "swoon" Weidner and Harmut "charming" Fähndrich. You should be able to read an English version of this interview with the festival's head Ulrich Schreiber very soon indeed. He wants to set "a milestone for literary communication between Europe and the Arab world".

Sunday 6 September 2009

How Are Translators Chosen?

A reader asks:

I just heard a report on Deutsche Welle about Tellkamp meeting his translators and had to wonder about how they are chosen.

I suggest that translators who are willing to be interviewed by the "German World Service" and complain that they don't really understand a lot of the GDR references (the exasperated question "what is Pittiplatch?" was one of my favourites - even Wikipedia in English supplies the answer to that one, though I think it was the Spanish translator who was feeling a bit lost) was on and that makes it all too complicated need

- a bit more cultural education;
- to learn to use google;
- to consider whether they are translating the right kind of books;
- to consider what they say into a microphone as this could affect how people see their competence.

So: how do translators get picked? Is it often a coincidence?

I'd like to answer KMS's question in more detail. And to call your attention to a related Deutsche Welle article here, which looks at some of the difficulties involved with translating Der Turm.

Translators get picked, essentially and to my modest knowledge, by the publisher that buys the translation rights to the book. In some cases writers have their own translators who work on all their books, for example Ingo Schulze is translated by John E. Woods. But others, like Günter Grass, have been translated by all manner of different talented people: Breon Mitchell, Michael Henry Heim, Krishna Winston, Michael Hamburger, Ralph Manheim.

In this case, though, Uwe Tellkamp pretty much shot out of nowhere, so there was probably nobody out there with experience of translating him, which would presumably have helped matters. So I assume the publishers started asking around for translators. If a publishing house is experienced with translations they'll have people they've worked with before, who they know and trust. And they'll be the first people they turn to. With an award-winning book like Der Turm there's probably a certain amount of time pressure involved to get it out within a decent interval, so if their regular translator from German is tied up they'll keep asking around until they find someone else.

I can't comment about Spain or Bulgaria, but in Germany literary translators often specialise in a certain field, for example Latin American literature or books by young writers or chick lit or books with lots of equestrian terminology in them or the Beat Generation. In Britain and the States that's not so much the case, as so few translations are published. So you get someone like Ross Benjamin, who's translated Hölderlin and Vennemann and is working on Joseph Roth and Thomas Pletzinger, a fairly eclectic smorgasbord of German-language literature. Or indeed Michael Henry Heim, who translates out of about fifteen different languages.

In other cases, translators will tout titles they'd like to translate to publishers, and I'd say that this, when it works, is the ideal case as the translator will be extremely familiar with and passionate about the book. Some people are reluctant to do this though, especially if they're not very established themselves, because they fear the publishers will say, "Thanks, great idea, we'll get X to do it for us!" But that's just the risk you have to run. In most cases when I've done this, I've been happy to get even a rejection letter, but I do hope there are others out there who do the same, as a kind of Chinese water torture method of infiltrating the publishing market.

The short answer, then, is: yes, there's a certain amount of coincidence involved.

The other point I want to make is in specific defence of the poor Spanish translator...

Not everyone has the fortune to live in Berlin, where Pittiplatsch is an everyday sight and an eternally boring subject of conversation (you know those conversations Brits get into about children's TV shows as soon as two people of the same generation are in one room? Pittiplatsch is the East German equivalent to Mister Ben in that context, only odder). So not knowing a fairly obscure thing like that is something translators come up against every day. She probably did google him, but does Wikipedia give you a true idea of all the associations a certain character or term conjures up in the (East) German reader's mind?

I wouldn't want to question her ability on the basis of this one question, no matter how it appears to reflect on her competence. But of course translators are notoriously bad at blowing their own trumpets. I bet none of them turned up at the workshop in Straelen saying, "Actually, I didn't find it that difficult, as I'm an expert on the bourgeoisie in 1980s Dresden, and my medicine degree and military training came in handy for all the specialist terminology too..."

Thursday 3 September 2009

Compare & Contrast: Bookshops

I haven't read the post that goes with it, but the German trade mag Buchreport has a lovely set of photos of the top bookstore chains around the world. So you can compare the terribly stylish French Fnac with Russia's Top-Kniga, for example, which looks like even standing near it would hurt your eyes. The picture of Germany's top chain, Thalia, reminds me that I must change my profile photo.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Ups and Downs

The highbrow German literary mag Literaturen (print) is scaling down, from ten to six issues a year and from four to two editors. And just when I'd sort of stood next to one of them, Jörg Magenau, and decided he was an OK kinda guy, he's out on his ear. It seems readers don't want to buy it in huge numbers and publishers don't want to advertise in it for huge sums. The magazine relaunches in October, with some sort of high-culture internet platform by the name of Kultiversum to accompany it. Sad.

Another struggling literature project, Lettra, has found a straw to clutch at though. They do little films about books plus other content and will soon be working with a national network of newspapers to offer lit-related videos on newspaper websites. What jumps out at me on their site right now, though, is all the "0 Kommentar(e)".

And Bolano fans have started up their own interactive reading project: zwei666. Closely modelled on unendlicherspass.de, which is closely modelled on infinitesummer.org. Only the Bolano project allows readers 2666 hours to read 2666 and seems to be run by the writer Marvin Kleinemeier. The plan appears to be to offer a more open forum for bloggers and readers in general; sadly (as far as I can tell) without the participation of Bolano's translator Christian Hansen - a man with a great deal to say about his authors and translation in general. The fun starts on 7 September.

I've been following the unendlicherspass project from afar, and am actually rather impressed. It's an interesting mix of serious criticism, actual discussion - including a few tentative examinations of the translation - and subjective writing about the experience of reading the book. The list of contributors is growing, with more writers and just-plain-readers on it, although not all of them have posted yet. And people really are commenting, often arguing their own points or complaining at the style of the posts.

So does all this mean literary discussion is becoming more open in Germany? Are we moving away from the front-of-class reviews on paper format to online forums and other forms of content? But who's going to pay for it? I for one don't want to do without critics with credentials, and I'm actually on the side of those who suggest we start - gasp - paying for quality journalism on the internet, in some form or another. Because I'd like to think there's room for both - serious criticism that packs a punch, and interactive stuff with Facebook fan groups.