Monday 31 May 2010

Austrians in the UK

This week the good people of London and Hay-on-Wye can catch a couple of Austrian writers live. It's often said that Austrian authors are the most avant-garde in the German-speaking community - but I'll let you be the judge of that.

Lydia Mischkulnig certainly has some of the most avant-garde sunglasses I've ever seen in an invitation to a reading. You can see her in person on Thursday, 3 June at the Austrian Cultural Forum in London. And seeing as everything in the whole world right now is revolving around the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, Mischkulnig is no exception - she won it in 1996. They'd like you to book so there's no pushing and shoving.

Then on Friday, 4 June Clemens Setz is reading at the Guardian Hay festival. Actually he was supposed to be reading in London back in April but there was a slight volcano incident. So here's your chance to see him without even having to leave the sunny climes of Wales. He too has won prizes by the bucketload, including one at the Ingeborg Bachmann competition in 2008. I find he's rather fond of adjectives, but perhaps that's just me.

Booksellers Reveal All

They're taking off their glasses, shaking down their hair and closing up shop for the rest of the afternoon. Remember that fantastic scene with the lady in the bookstore from The Big Sleep? Well soon you can get your kicks from German lady booksellers in an erotic calendar.

As trade mag Börsenblatt reports, twelve lovely ladies from all around the country have been posing for the calendar. Cue much moaning about people expecting booksellers to be mousy and bespectacled when they're actually full-blooded babes. I don't know though, I think I'd find it rather unnerving to be sold books by someone I'd seen in her underwear. I suspect it'll be no good for business - and if you watch that clip above, you'll notice that all those feminine charms still don't convince Humphrey Bogart to buy anything.

Sunday 30 May 2010

Translation Idol Entries Now Online

Head over to no man's land to peruse some blurry pictures, the original text and all the entries for Translation Idol 2010.


Friday 28 May 2010

The Problem With Panels

The problem with public appearances is the fear. The days of low-level anxiety beforehand over what to wear - no, those shoes just won't do, and that dress is too much - until you start to feel like a character in a Noel Streatfield novel and long for a plucky Nanny to run you up a little something out of the drawing room curtains. Then the eight hours of concentrated fear beforehand, in which you worry about what on earth to say. The inability to eat, combined with the fact that you know you need to keep your blood sugar up so you keep nibbling at things and then discarding them like some spoilt kid in a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel.

Followed by half an hour of outright irrational terror as you stand around politely with your fellow panel people and assure each other you all have no idea what you're talking about. And then you're up there and everyone's looking at you and yes, you are the token woman, and people take your photo and your mind goes blank as soon as any question refers back to a previous comment because you're operating on pure adrenaline and charm and you're smiling and nodding and thinking, how on earth can I phrase this completely erudite thought in fucking German, so you have a two-minute delay operating and by the time you've worked it out the conversation's moved on and you make your entire profession look like a bunch of monosyllabic morons with fixed grins.

And then it's over, and being a well brought-up kind of girl who wants to be good and kind like in a Susan Coolidge novel, you stick around and smile a bit more. And presumably you've managed to appear not entirely terrified, because nobody reassures you that you were great, or you were fine, or you were better than the guy on the right, or your shoes looked nice. At which point the post-panel paranoia kicks in, presumably an after-effect of the adrenaline, and yes, that guy's ignoring you, and no, nobody important wants to talk to you, and yes, that other guy really did just ask your fellow panel person standing two feet to the left of you to join them all in a restaurant and looked straight through you.

And then you join them in a restaurant even though you'd rather either curl up in a ball in bed or go on a raging drunken tour of strip clubs and karaoke bars and pick up Mormons on the street and seduce them. And a collossal bad mood creeps up on you, unsurprisingly seeing as you haven't eaten in hours, but the thought of food turns your stomach and you're trying to talk to the two people you genuinely like at the table without revealing the extent of your foul temper like in a Louisa May Alcott novel - shit, probably not like in a Louisa May Alcott novel, but at this point who cares?

And you leave and walk home and write angry adrenaline-fuelled emails and can't sleep because you keep sitting up in bed and shouting. Which doesn't happen in any of the books you read as a child so you don't have a frame of reference to deal with it.

Shit, if I did this all the time I'd have a heroin habit.

Update: There is photographic evidence. I'm the one with the nice shoes.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Gratuitous Iconoclasm

I'm all for a spot of classics-bashing, so my gratitude goes out to Isa for pointing out a magnificent piece in the ZEIT, in which writers under the random age of 35 bitch about German and American classics. Hemingway's way too sweaty for Paul Brodowsky, Brecht wrote too many darn poems for Nora Bossong, Thomas Klupp just doesn't get Döblin. And more.

With plenty of gratuitous exclamation marks!

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Tilman Rammstedt: Der Kaiser von China

There were various reasons why I read this book. First of all, I’m going through a very forgiving phase in which I seem to be overcoming all sorts of irrational prejudices, and I just didn’t get the extract from the novel (trans. Martin Chalmers) that won Rammstedt the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize a couple of years ago. Secondly, I’m on a panel with the writer on Thursday so I thought I’d better swot up on what he does. And thirdly, I’ve met him and he was quite a nice chap and seemed not at all fazed by my drunken ramblings on said occasion. Oh and fourthly, everyone I know who’s read the book really loved it.

And what’s not to love? It’s light and fluffy on the surface and rich on the inside, like an inverted Milky Way. It makes you laugh once you get your head around the quietly bizarre humour. And it’s a joyful caper all the way through, with two completely odd but good sex scenes to lift it out of the good clean fun segment.

The title, sadly, doesn’t work in translation. Meaning literally “the emperor of China”, it’s what people say when something sounds highly unlikely, as we use “then I’m the king of Siam!” in English. So the book is about unlikelihoods, on two different levels.

First we have the unlikely narrator Keith Stapperpfennig, poor guy. He and his brothers and sisters live with their grandfather, a ladies’ man and control freak who has decided he can’t treat them all equally so will simply lavish all his attention on Keith. Grandfather decides he’s going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to China with Keith – only unfortunately Keith loses all the money for the holiday in a casino after accidentally proposing to his grandfather’s girlfriend, with whom he’s having a clandestine affair. The novel opens with Keith hiding under his desk, pretending to be in China, as he finds out his grandfather has gone and died while also pretending to be in China a few miles down the road.

Meanwhile Keith has been writing letters to his family from an imaginary China culled from the pages of a Lonely Planet guidebook. These start off harmless enough, written in the slightly stilted tone of tourist guides. But then he starts adding bizarre details – non-stop dental hygiene shows on the TV, dog vaccinations at the post office – and the letters get longer and longer. And he begins weaving a second (or third, or fourth?) fiction, a long-lost tragic love story between his grandfather and a Chinese circus fat lady. Eventually, he concocts a story that covers up the unexpected death and may even get him out of getting married.

I can understand that it might sound a tad odd. And it is, and more than a tad. But that’s all part of the appeal. At one point Rammstedt himself tricks us with a tiny cruel plot twist of the “Murder, She Wrote” type – you know when Angela Lansbury discovers some key fact about a suspect right at the end and you feel slightly cheated because you could never have guessed? Well it’s like that. Only it’s so blatantly in character with the book that it makes you laugh out loud.

I liked it. A lot. I liked suspending my disbelief for Keith's sections and reinstating it for the letters. I liked the variation in the language between the two formats. I liked the hopeless loser Keith, reluctant to deal with his grandfather's inconvenient death. I liked the sex scenes (did I mention that?). I had fun. And I know what you're going to say... German humour? But no, it really works here, it's almost Pythonesque in its scurrility. So go ahead, it won't bite.

Sunday 23 May 2010

The Observer Fails to Observe Michael Hofmann

It'd be funny, really, if it weren't quite so tragic. Today's Observer has an interesting piece by Dalya Alberge on the unexpected success of Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin in the UK. Unexpected, of course, because the book is translated. And as everybody knows, nobody wants to read those nasty foreign books by people with unpronouncable names. Except that in this case, 100,000 people already have and Penguin is expecting to sell a whopping 250,000 copies.

The article ticks all the right boxes - talking to the British Centre for Literary Translation, bemoaning the lack of published translated fiction, etc. etc. And then Alberge fails to mention the small matter of the translator himself - Michael Hofmann, whose prose genuinely shines in the English version.

While the Observer's weekday sister paper the Guardian is clearly making an effort to credit translators in its reviews, it seems the Sunday journalists or editors haven't quite caught on. It's enough to make you bang your head against a wall, really it is.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Translation Idol 2010 - The Winners

I just know you're all on tenterhooks, but readers, it was all so mentally exhausting it's taken me until now to recover. So thank you so much for your patience.

Son of Translation Idol - no man's land sucht den Superübersetzer went rather well, if I do say so myself. The task this time was to put a song into English, which is no mean feat. But we had a good few submissions from Berlin-based translators and literature lovers, and from more far-flung climes too. Our poet was the delightful Jan Böttcher, who also regaled us with his own German versions of formerly English songs on the guitar.

As time-honoured tradition has it, Jan got to bestow the Poet's Prize on his own favourite, which was Tony Crawford's version. I don't think anyone spotted the hidden Paul Simon reference though. Sadly Tony couldn't be with us on the night and the live Hollywood link-type technology was down due to human error. So he'll have to collect his amazing prizes another time.

The democratic part of the event though is the balloting process to determine the winner of the Audience Award. There was some dissent among the rank and file over the first-past-the-post system, with calls for a more European voting modus. But in the end everyone just marked their favourites with a cross because the electoral committee (i.e. me) was in no mood for mental arithmetric.

Third place went to the inimitable John Manning, a veteran of the no man's land translation lab. Second came the young newcomer Lesley Dean, who was even accompanied live on the guitar by her friend Nina. And number one by a substantial majority, Translation Idol 2010 was...

Steph Morris (aka DJ Lang) for his free version liberally strewn with references to seventies soul tunes.

All the translations should be up on the no man's land website in the next few days, where you can also listen to the original tune.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Translation Idol Tonight

no man's land Translation Idol

Featuring Jan Böttcher

8:30 tonight

Saint George's Bookshop
Wörther Straße 27
Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg


Judge your peers

It's not raining

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Amazon Moves Into Translation

Much, much, much excitement: the big bad guys are launching the publishing imprint AmazonCrossing, "which will introduce readers to voices of the world through English-language translations of foreign-language books." (See press release.)

In case you don't know, the English-speaking publishing world isn't currently all that keen on translations. There are a few standard excuses - so many people around the world write in English, it costs more, the names are hard to pronounce, we don't speak any foreign languages so we can't tell if there are any good books out there... I won't go into what I think of these arguments.

Amazon tells us it will now be using its humongous resources to pick books for translation:

AmazonCrossing uses customer feedback and other data from Amazon sites around the world to identify exceptional books deserving of a wider, global audience. AmazonCrossing will acquire the rights and translate the books and then introduce them to the English-speaking market through multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store, and national and independent booksellers via third-party wholesalers.

That's what I find interesting, and the inaugural title gives us an idea of how that might work. Guinea-born Tierno Monénembo's The King of Kahel was originally published in France, and is a prize-winning debut novel about an explorer in West Africa. A fairly canny choice, then - exotic, proven quality, exciting fiction. It comes out in November, but Amazon is already pushing all the right buttons to promote it. Scroll down this page to see how they've really made the most of those humongous resources - highly respected voices on the imprint itself, a brief introduction to the book and the author with links to further information (and pre-ordering), AND an interview with the translator Nicholas Elliot. With a photo.

So not only is Amazon biting the bullet and translating fiction, it's actually foregrounding the translator. And just to warm the cockles of my heart, they've even given Elliot his first chance to translate fiction, a notoriously difficult field to get into. The whole thing gets Amazon so many translator Brownie points that it's hard to imagine it not going to international fiction heaven (if it weren't for its crippling effects on booksellers and small publishers).

So I'm now anticipating a paradigm shift in English-language publishing. No more hiding the translator on the copyright page, no more "but it's hard to pronounce," no more "nobody wants to read that freaky stuff." Just wait, soon there'll be a boom in translated fiction, with publishers tripping over each other to grab up great German books and Arabic essays and Czech poetry and Brazilian drama. Translated fiction will be the new World Music - without the ponchos.

Monday 17 May 2010

Robert Walser Goes To Brooklyn

Read two tantalising samples from Susan Bernofsky's translation of Robert Walser's Microscripts at Brooklyn Rail (a fine publication).

With regard to prettiness and its absence, beautiful women are perhaps too self-preoccupied for purposes of Europeanness and may not have time to pursue so time-consuming a business as Europeanism with all its obligations.

Odd and enjoyable little texts written in high style on the back of telegrammes, book covers and the like.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Goetz at Suhrkamp: Still Loved By His Fan Base

According to Wikipedia, Rainald Goetz is a German author, playwright and essayist. "Goetz won numerous literary awards. He is still loved by his fan base, but he hasn't written anything which captivated the larger audience for some years."

That same source also tells us: "Suhrkamp Verlag is a German publishing house, established in 1950 and generally acknowledged as one of the leading European publishers of fine literature. In January 2010 the headquarters of the company moved from Frankfurt to Berlin."

Having done so, they've just opened a temporary store in Berlin-Mitte, the edition suhrkamp laden, run by hard-core booksellers from the Autorenbuchhandlung in Charlottenburg. The place is gorgeous, tastefully done with a rainbow wall of books and slightly silly chairs, a bar, espresso machine, etc. And of course there are events. Lots of classy events you'd really want to go to. Film screenings, readings, discussions.

Unfortunately I chose to go and see Rainald Goetz. As did what looked like his entire adoring fan base. And all 200 of them squashed into the relatively modest-sized store and started breathing in each others' vapours. Because it's raining outside and they're presumably all still steaming away in there. Although possibly not - I left after 32 minutes.

The thing about Rainald Goetz' adoring fan base is that they all seem to know each other. Or perhaps they all work for Suhrkamp. Certainly there was a huge amount of air kissing going on in the 15 minutes before Rainald Goetz deigned to arrive. I, on the other hand, am not part of the adoring fan base and knew one and a half people. Neither of whom appeared to recognise me. My feeble attempt to get chatting to two men behind me resulted in a look as if I had killed their mutual grandmother and gone on to ask the world's most stupid question.

I wouldn't usually attempt to talk to strangers at a reading. But this was a Rainald Goetz reading, so it was special. The special thing about it was this: Rainald Goetz stood on a chair near the front of the room. From there he announced that he'd be giving short readings at quarter past every hour. On the hour, he told us, he would do some kind of action. Then we stood around steaming and waiting for the next 15 minutes to be up, during which time I asked said stupid question. Then Rainald Goetz read very quickly and breathlessly from his latest book - about talking to drunk publishing people at the Frankfurt book fair in 2008 - for what felt like two minutes. Then he squeezed his way outside. The adoring fanbase applauded. I left.

I don't know what happened after that, except that by the time I made my way to the door I had had more physical contact with strangers than I cared for and Rainald Goetz was attempting to get back in. Reminded of rush hour in Tokyo, I rebuked him that one has to let people out before one can get in. But seeing as I was incredibly annoyed at the downright cheek of the thing, it may have come out too quiet to hear.

He may be good, for all I know.

Update: I'm told Goetz performed for four hours and everybody loved it. I'm mystified. My only suspicion is that Rainald Goetz is like Marmite - you either love him or you hate him, and in order to love him you have to have been fed him at a formative age.

Update II: See what I missed on youtube. I still don't get it.

Friday 14 May 2010

Don't Forget Translation Idol

This is a shout-out to all those translators, budding translators and wannabe translators out there - the deadline for Translation Idol is this coming Monday.

See for more details.

And if you're in Berlin, do come along on Thursday to cheer us all on.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Quiet Please - Translation in Progress

It may be rather quiet around here for a while. That's because my friend Stefan Tobler (no, not the one who came second place as Mister Switzerland) and I are translating all fourteen entries for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. They say:

Without a doubt, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, alongside the Joseph Breitbach Prize and the Georg Büchner Prize, is the most important literary award in the German-speaking world.

I do love that. What they mean is that it's THE prize for emerging writers. This is a great gig, I have to say, especially as nobody's supposed to know yet who's in the running. So there's a little smile on my face as I translate because it's a secret - and because the texts are really astoundingly good so far.

The entries are currently being translated into seven different languages for your delectation, but they won't be on the website until the writers read them live in Klagenfurt. So from 24 to 26 June. At which point it'll be broadcast live on 3sat - but it's not good telly, unfortunately.

If you can't wait that long and are in Berlin, you could always head over to the Literaturwerkstatt in Prenzlauer Berg on 27 May, where there'll be a discussion on how incredibly important translation is in the context. And how incredibly fantastic translators are, and how incredibly hard they work and more of that kind of thing. Having asked lots of actual famous people along who presumably said no, the organisers turned to me. So I'll be up there fighting my nerves on the podium. Let's hope there's time for a stiff drink beforehand.

Monday 10 May 2010


Book covers are different in different countries, even when the same books are inside them. Tom Lamont compares notes in yesterday's Observer, taking particular exception to translations into foreign languages. And it works the other way around too.

Compare and contrast, for example, Sasa Stanisic's book in German (vaguely nostalgic but rather odd photo) and English (picture of gramophone for the very dumb), Julia Franck's in German (puzzling shadows) and English (something out of Brief Encounter) and Alina Bronsky's in German (red on red just so you realise it's about Russians) and English (purple and hip). And I'm not even going to mention the British cover of Wetlands.

Günter Grass' Tin Drum, on the other hand, just gets a bit of a grooviness injection in English compared to German.

I think we can safely say, based on this extremely wide survey, that English covers dumb German books down visually so people aren't scared of them being foreign and difficult. Which is a perfectly legitimate strategy.

Friday 7 May 2010

Dirty Words, Picture Dictionaries and Wetlands

Jessa Crispin and I discuss the above at Bookslut. The picture dictionary, just in case it gets you wondering, is the Duden-Oxford Bildwörterbuch (Mannheim, 1994) and is a very useful tool for translators with some fascinating illustrations of car engines, church architecture and the human body, all painstakingly labelled in two languages.

If you own a copy, I recommend a look at pp. 552-553 for the most hilarious drawings of a nightclub you'll ever see. My, how we laughed.

How Berlin Is That?

Come on, this is a hoax, right? They haven't really made a puppet play out of Axolotl Roadkill? Oh. They have. I'm in awe - the world's favourite cliché about Berlin just disappeared up its own arse.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Alina Bronsky: Broken Glass Park

Everybody’s loving it, so I thought by rights I ought to hate it – but I can’t, dammit. Broken Glass Park (trans. Tim Mohr) is the story of Sascha Naimann, a seventeen-year-old living in a Russian ghetto near Frankfurt. Her stepfather has murdered her mother and her lover and Sascha's plan is to kill him back. So far, so juvenile. Yet the book has a large cast of quirky characters that lift it out of the teen segment and make it what’s commonly known as a jolly good read.

Let me state right here that the claim on the back cover that the novel “recalls the narrative art of Zadie Smith” is bollocks. Smith, I suspect, would have pulled her plot a little tighter than Bronsky has here – but perhaps the reviewer was casting about to find a comparison for the “fiction about immigrants that isn’t about being an immigrant” genre, one that isn’t all that established in Germany. Because despite the basic coordinates and the setting, Broken Glass Park isn’t really about being Russian in Germany.

Instead it’s about young love, young hate, the family and the community. Although Sascha falls into that hardworking, studious category of immigrant so beloved in US fiction (think The Kiterunner and Girl in Translation, The Namesake, etc. etc.), the book’s really about being a traumatised teenager, regardless of nationality. Our heroine meets a comparatively wealthy father and son, sleeps with a Nazi, has various terrible accidents and, you know, comes to terms with stuff.

In between we get plenty of cameo appearances from the Russian community, from the blonde who walks round and round the courthouse in the hope of meeting a nice lawyer to the disabled chess genius with a talent for narrating porn films. The Broken Glass Park of the title is where the bad kids hang out, although sadly some of the later broken glass gets lost in translation, unavoidably so I think.

On the subject of translation, it’s rather good. Tim Mohr has a fine hand for dialogue and cusses. Here’s a sample conversation between Sascha’s younger sister and brother, aged 3 and about ten:

“That was my card, you buttfucker,” says Alissa. “Scum,” retorts Anton.

And I rarely had that oh I’d have done that differently feeling.

All in all, it’s a tad fluffy but a decent, quick read. It’s also a good book to introduce younger readers to the worlds of international writing out there without scaring them back into their shells. Alina Bronsky is probably still touring the States right now, and she does a good line in cute photos, belying the fact that she has three kids – respect.


Loyal readers may have noticed I felt a certain affinity to Helene Hegemann's novel Axolotl Roadkill. And perhaps the odd person thought: Hey, she's a translator, she could put it into English so the rest of us can read it.

And yes! That's exactly what I'm going to do! I'm going to roll up my sleeves and confront those blackouts, sweaty T-shirts and ten different illegal drugs head on. I'm going to revel in the gorgeous language, feel my way into fucked-up Mifti like a first-class voyeur and - I hope - enjoy every minute of it.

By way of method translation, I shall continue to love my parents and dress in a stylish manner, as Hegemann recommends. I won't be going to Berghain because my body clock's all wrong for that kind of partying. But I've already started eavesdropping on conversations to find out how clubgoing people really talk - not that the book makes any claim to authenticity, which is one of the things I like about it. I'm also rather grateful for the detailed list of sources, something a translator usually has to use guesswork to get around.

Look out for the book in the UK next year from Constable & Robinson. US publishers have yet to take the bait, I believe.

It's a real privilege to translate a novel like this that I'm genuinely enthusiastic about, and I'm hugely excited about it. Feel free to congratulate me.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Alternative Entertainment on Election Night

If you're in London or thereabouts, you could do worse than heading to the Goethe Institut on Thursday. The British critic Erica Wagner (The Times) meets the German Christopher Bartmann (SZ, FAZ) in the first of an intriguing new series assessing the literary agenda in Britain and Germany and the changing role of the critic.

Details are here.

Passages on Translation

The Swiss arts council Pro Helvetia publishes the magazine passages, which you can download as a pdf here. The latest issue is all about the art of literary translation - including intelligent pieces on Robert Walser and other Swiss writers in the rest of the world, the difficulties of translating picture books between cultures, and how Coca Cola and chewing gum morphed into a glut of translations out of English - in an article that gets rather bleak as it goes on. And I rather like the photos acting out various sayings from around the world.

Monday 3 May 2010

Helene Speaks

She's been hounded by the press, she's spawned her very own neologism for lifting pieces of text, she's cancelled appointments and appearances – and now she's written a long piece in DIE ZEIT addressed at her critics. I've read it once and the article is still languishing beside my bed, her face gazing reproachfully up at me every night until I get round to re-reading it.

Helene Hegemann's certainly not afraid to voice her emotions, and I'm struck once again by the way her words are so similar to the diction of the novel all the fuss has been about, Axolotl Roadkill. Here's what she says about the whole matter:

Something I never concealed – the fact that a number of sentences in my book – a number not unusual in literature over the past centuries – were once written in similar form elsewhere became a full-blown opportunity to 1. not take me seriously, 2. insult me and 3. parade the wildest speculations as proven facts. "A few sentences" blew up into "numerous passages" and in the end 90 percent of the book that I had allegedly copied from the internet. Many journalists I communicated with during this time refused – whether their articles were intended to attack me or defend me – to include what is actually the most important fact: that the passages referred to as plagiarism (not copied but modified and placed in an entirely different context) amount to approximately one single page out of 206.

It's well worth reading for a taste of Hegemann's inimitable style and a reminder that what she did was not a deadly sin - and that the reactions went well overboard. Oh, and why all kids don't have to hate their parents, and why all 18-year-olds aren't the same, and how to deal with people throwing darts at your photo.