Wednesday 30 June 2010

Cultures in Translation

The Goethe Institut has put together a bijou octolingual website called Cultures in Translation, showcasing German books now available in translation, the publishers daring enough to bring them out, and... the translators behind them!

They asked most of us three questions, and it's fascinating to read all the answers. A spoiler: not one person planned to become a translator!

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Hope for Derring-Do Readers

This piece was originally published in German in Volltext Magazin 3/2010 (a special on the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize). Below is my slightly jazzed-up translation.

I know, I know, we’ve heard it a million times before – translated literature has it tough in the English-speaking world. One magic number’s been doing the rounds for years: three percent of publications are translations, so they say (and not just De La Soul). Mind you, this figure is a pretty generous estimate and includes not only literary titles. Whichever way you look at it, 31 translations of German-language literature were published in the USA in 2009, putting German at third place on the list of the most translated languages (after Spanish and French). So nobody’s turning somersaults.

German-language literature – there’s not usually much of a distinction made between Austria, Switzerland and Germany – used to have a certain reputation in Britain and the States. Not much of a surprise here either: it was seen as heavyweight and serious. Every cultured individual had to have read at least Thomas Mann, if not Goethe and Kleist as well; as long as they had their dead white men covered. Other hits in this department – perhaps a little astounding for German-speakers – are Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Wolfgang Koeppen.

But cultured individuals are actually few and far between in the English-speaking world. I’d argue that the vast majority of today's readers don’t come to books with fixed expectations, whether they’re German, Icelandic or Mexican. As fewer and fewer children learn languages in Britain and the States, whole generations are spared the torture of reading foreign books in the original with a dictionary at the ready, only half-understanding them at best. And yes, we hopeless optimists can see that as a blessing for literature - as long as translations are there to fill the gap.

Occasionally, a translated book is a surprise hit. The case in point right now is Michael Hofmann’s translation of Hans Fallada’s Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Alone in Berlin). Penguin has already sold 100,000 copies in the UK and expects to shift up to a quarter of a million units. A very revealing phenomenon, as it shows what your average Brit does love about German-language literature: Nazis. Michael Wallner’s April in Paris, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum – many of the very popular translations from German deal with the subject, yet they never quench the seemingly endless thirst for new perspectives on the Third Reich.

Aside from bestselling writers such as Daniel Kehlmann and Ilja Trojanow, publishers appear to find it easier to match up to certain clichés than to go by quality alone. Just look at all those Jewish family sagas from Austria and hedonistic adventures in Berlin. So it’s not easy for younger writers to break into the market if they simply write about what they’re interested in. The implicit message is: English, Indian, American, Australian, Nigerian authors are writing about relationships – so why should we translate that kind of thing?

Translators, of course, are locked in a constant battle to break down that invisible forcefield. All the translators I know are absolutely passionate about “their” literature and do their utmost to get that spark of enthusiasm across. We’re literary missionaries and we won’t shut up until everyone’s converted. Our great hope rests in few hands: a few scattered editors actually versant in foreign languages at the major publishing houses, the university presses and the small independents. These indies consist of one or two crazy people who put all their energies into their books, which then sadly have fewer chances on an almost entirely monopolised market than big-name titles. In recent years, there has been a minor rash of new small publishers specialising in translated literature: Europa Editions, Open Letter Books, Seagull Books with a German and a Swiss list, Archipelago Books, Peirene Press – and soon And Other Stories, an initiative set up by desperate and daring translators to bring quality international literature to British shores.

And things really do seem to be changing slightly. New forums, festivals, publishers and prizes are springing up, fostered by the internet as it enables people with obscure passions to find one another. Now even Amazon has announced it wants to save the world of translated literature. With AmazonCrossing, the mighty company intends to identify strong foreign-language titles and publish them in English. Whether their logarithms will have the right instincts remains to be seen; they certainly have the necessary resources to promote and sell international literature. And maybe, just maybe they’ll show the major publishers that it’s worth taking a risk on foreign books. Booksellers at least agree – readers are looking for good stories, regardless of where they come from.

Up to now, however, editors seem to need a reliable crutch if they are to go all out for a translation. Literary awards are very welcome pointers, particularly in the UK, where both readers and the press are held captive by the Booker Prize. Yet the vast numbers of prizes in the German-speaking countries have even the greatest of experts scratching their heads. One reason why the German Book Prize was invented, with mixed results – two of four past winners have been sold to the UK so far.

The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize seems to be doing something right at any rate. Former participants really are making their way into English translation. Alina Bronsky is currently picking up rave reviews for Broken Glass Park (trans. Tim Mohr), Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew (trans. Ross Benjamin) was received with great respect, and Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repaired the Gramophone (trans. Anthea Bell) even made it onto a list of holiday reads in a glossy magazine. Other ex-participants Zoe Jenny, Julia Franck, Antje Ravic Strubel, Jenny Erpenbeck, Helmut Krausser, Richard David Precht and Juli Zeh have also made it to our shores. Next year sees my translation of Inka Parei’s Die Schattenboxerin hitting stores – OK, ten years after it was translated into thirteen other languages, but hey.

So it’s all the more pleasing that the good people of Klagenfurt have been getting all the texts for the competition translated into seven languages for the past three years – making it a tiny bit easier for derring-do editors and readers to find exciting new writing. This year I was one of the translators, which was a great thrill. I made discoveries, corrected prejudices, learnt huge amounts about high-seas fishing and realised: there’s so much talent out there! Anyone who gets as deeply involved with some of these texts as a translator can only hope that the US and the UK will soon overcome their fear of foreign literatures.

Monday 28 June 2010

Wholly Compensated? Scratch That.

So there's me feeling all warm inside about enjoying the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize festivities at a distance, adored by my many fans and all that. And then comes this - Wolfgang Hörner, winner Peter Wawerzinek's publisher, on what he did in Klagenfurt. Jeez. Don't read it. You'll melt out of sheer envy.

John Le Carré on the Benefits of Learning German... in German

The arch-British writer John Le Carré has never made a secret of his enthusiasm for all things German, and recently held a speech on the subject for the London-based ThinkGerman project. Unfortunately, although I came across the speech online, it seems to be only available in German translation, in the FAZ. A classic case of preaching to the converted - but it's well worth reading anyway. My favourite part is when the young David Cornwell shakes Thomas Mann's hand at a reading in Bern in 1949.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Ingeborg Bachmann Prize Day 4

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12:00: The last bouquet goes to Michaela Monschein, who organised the competition from top to bottom - my contact in Klagenfurt, a delightful and very persuasive woman who deserves all the recognition she can get. I'd like to thank her and the people behind the prize for the opportunity to translate my half of the texts, which was an absolute pleasure. And many many thanks to my fellow translator Stefan Tobler, who is a wise editor and a great person to work with.

11:57: I've had a fantastic time blogging from my sofa. I hope you've enjoyed following my humble opinions, and I was delighted to get your feedback in the comments. And in fact, it's been so much fun that I feel wholly compensated for not actually going along. Because knowing myself, I realise I would never have concentrated on the texts and the criticism if I'd actually been there - I'd have been standing outside chatting, drinking too much every night and combatting hangovers every day.

11:45: Hubert Winkels was a juror for the first time this year. I found him unnecessarily cruel and I suspect he made notes in advance to make sure he looked good - but those comparisons to Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King were very much below the belt. Alain Claude Sulzer was the class clown, in a way, never afraid to say he just didn't get it. Which is cool. Hildegard Keller was fair, friendly, and made fantastic comments revealing her deep knowledge of German literature. If I'd been there I'd have wanted to hug her. Karin Fleischanderl was passionate and rude to her fellow jurors, which was very entertaining. Meike Feßmann looked at the language, for which I am grateful, but was too keen on the realistic for me to take her entirely seriously. Burkhard Spinnen was witty, wise and wordy. He was a popular contender in conversation yesterday. But the Chez Katy Prize goes to Paul Jandl, for only ever saying things that made sense, for keeping his feet firmly on the ground, and for taking a back seat and allowing the focus to remain on the texts.

11:40 My friend Meike Ziervogel from Peirene Press told me Klagenfurt is a great showcase for writers - and especially for critics. And I'd agree. We've seen three days of writing, and three days of critics talking about that writing. So I'd like to criticise the critics here and award the Chez Katy Prize for the top critic.

11:34: Audience Award goes to Peter Wawerzinek. A very personal text, beautifully and imaginatively written. The novel comes out in August from my buddies at Galiani Verlag (once again proving their immaculate taste).

11.33: Ernst Willner Prize Go Janesch!!!! Vote between her and Scholz. Scholz takes it - narrowly (even Burkhard Spinnen voted for him, with clenched teeth).

11:32: 3Sat Prize Scholz or Zander? Judith Zander. God those poor writers all sweating in their corner.

11:30: Can you believe Rossbacher's not on the shortlist? Elmiger wins the Kelag Prize. Cheering. She looks a bit emotional.

11:29: Kelag Prize vote between Elmiger and Scholz.

11:28: Who's won? Peter Wawerzinek. I'm happy with that. €25,000. He looks a bit upset.

11:24: Feßmann loves Wawerzinek. Sulzer too. Fleischanderl Elmiger. Spinnen Wawerzinek. Winkels Scholz. Keller Zander. Jandl Elmiger. So now they have to vote again between Wawerzinek and Elmiger. Yawn.

11:21: Shortlist for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize: Peter Wawerzinek, Dorothee Elmiger, Aleks Scholz, Judith Zander, Daniel Mezger, Sabrina Janesch, Christian Fries. This is the very dull part where the critics vote on their nifty touchscreens.

So today the critics argue over who gets the four prizes. Yesterday 3Sat showed us Jo "the überchooch" Lendle, big boss man for proper literature at Dumont Verlag, talking about his favourites. And as he said, there really are only four writers in the running: Dorothee Elmiger, Aleks Scholz, Peter Wawerzinek and Verena Rossbacher. So here we go.

Saturday 26 June 2010


For your Bachmann favourite up to 8 pm CET here.

Ingeborg Bachmann Prize Day 3

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That's it for today. I think it worked better for me when I didn't have visitors and wasn't slightly tipsy. But it was fun.

I'm flagging now, I'm sorry. Keller being nice as usual. Of course the text was a tad medieval. Jane Birkin! she says.

Spinnen defending his choice. It's hard to present people thinking in a realistic genre. Here, he says, it's the language that does the telling. He likes pregnant marbles, not like Feßmann.

Sulzer gave up reading it too, like I did. People hated her reading here, as did Sulzer. I chuckled all the way through. The critics are divided again, is it mannerism and is that a bad thing?

Fleischanderl says the Germans don't get Austrian literature. Laughter here. Someone here said the text was Habsburgian decadence. Feßmann says the text is waving a flag saying "I am art!"

I'm reading along in English, laughing almost as crazily as Rossbacher's reading. I think my guests might think I'm odd. They're restless now, they're annoyed that there's a murder at the end. Disappointed. Divided opinions here.

Stunned silence. Someone said "associative tapestry". "Did you translate this? Do you get it?"

She's reading like a woman insane. No surprise there then.

Someone just said "What the fuck".

She's reading. It's so completely odd. Here's what I prepared earlier.

Verena Rossbacher is the writer everyone’s pinned their hopes on this year. And hers was the text that made the deepest impression on me. Without a doubt. I first read it on paper and my heart sank. Untranslatable! Incomprehensible! An absolute cheek! What on earth is it about? I suspect Sulzer won’t like it.

And then I sat down and began translating. The text wavers and flickers and makes little sense on first reading, and it’s an absolute challenge to get to grips with, even as a reader. And it’s so utterly dependent on rhythm that the only possible way to translate it was as freely as possible. And it plays with letters and sounds and subtle alliteration, and colours and Catholicism – oh yes, it’s utterly Catholic. So I ended up spending a great deal of time immersed deeply within the text, using a kind of automatic writing approach to feel my way through in the dark. Reading aloud and grappling for rhythms, changing words to suit the effect rather than the content – which is there, but which I felt was almost secondary to the words themselves.

In the end it was an absolute pleasure and I’m quite proud of the result, given the time pressure I was under. I particularly like the middle section in which God – the Big Guy in my version – sends Gabriel to tell Mary about his plan, as he’s too busy gardening himself. In fact I got a bit carried away and added the odd bit to it myself, as a kind of compensatory strategy because, inevitably, some of the German stuff was lost in translation. That’s allowed – because I say so.

What’s it about? It’s about a man who’s killed a woman. I can’t wait to hear her read it. I’d love her to win and then the two of us would go on a tour of the English-speaking world and she’d read her version and I’d read mine, and the audiences would swoon like at the end of Perfume. This is a text that inspires wild fantasies. It may not be to everybody’s taste. But they won’t forget it in a hurry.

Irritatingly witty home-made portrait of Verena Rossbacher.

Spinnen's annoyed with Fries for reading such a lot so quickly.

Sulzer doesn't get the point either. Paul Jandl chose the text, he says it's a grotesque that's written to entertain. We're discussing Wilhelm Reich here. Turns out two of my guests have sat there in Klagenfurt themselves... One say Jandl's defending his text nicely. I wasn't listening.

OK, Hubert Winkels is pulling the "fun brake". Who'd have thought we'd ever dislike the same text? People do like it here but they wouldn't give it the Chez Katy Prize. The jurors resent him trying so hard to make them laugh, Feßmann too. Fleischanderl: "Wuchteldruckerei" - it's easy to make cheap jokes about sex - our Austrian expert here says that gorgeous word means squeezing the jam out of a doughnut...

Stefan, are you reading this? I'm completely prejudiced against this text - what did you think when you translated it?

Yeah, the others like it. They like the irony. And the reading.

Still very quiet and concentrated here. So it must be just me who dislikes it.

Concentrated frowns, occasional smiles.

He's reading. From a music stand. Oh my. Long, long introduction to Wilhelm Reich beforehand. People say all this talking is not a good sign.

Here's what I prepared earlier.

Stefan translated this text, which neither of us were hugely keen on. Steeped in self-pity, the story of a drama student whose parents split up. And being a very pretentious kind of narrator, he mixes in a little Reichian theory. Now obviously I have no idea about Reichian theory, but it’s certainly an annoying thing to put in a fictional text, and Fries thus succeeds in making his narrator not only pretentious and self-pitying but also very very irritating.

Of course everybody hates him, apart from the women, who want to go to bed with him. And he gets a job on TV, so everybody hates him a bit more. And his father is having a thing with a woman the children don’t approve of. I really can’t say much about this text in hindsight, other than that it’s really rather irksome on second reading too. An extract from a short novel: “Not exactly a bestseller, I think.”

Stefan's translation is here.

Portrait Christian Fries. He's playing the whistle. Now he's pushing a piano around. This confirms my prejudices about the writer. But you'll see.

Short break. We've cracked open the prosecco. So now the social experiment live blogging at a party is getting a tiny bit more exciting.

The jurors were dismissive, broke off the discussion early.

"A poor man's Stephen King." (Winkels) We're all feeling very sorry for Iris Schmidt. Poor woman sitting there, listening to the critics dealing the dirt (deservedly?). Keller chose the text and says it's "solidly written".

Burkhard Spinnen just made a plea for tact and speed. I think he wants to be kind.

We've started on the cake. Everyone's hoping something happens.

We're laughing at the daughter's generous bosom. Murmurs of "unliterary"...

We're chatting amongst ourselves...

The select audience chez Katy is bitching already. Last winter must have inspired people, all this snow... We're not overly impressed.

Oh gosh, Iris Schmidt's started already, no portrait. So here's a little something I prepared earlier. My translation: here.

This is one of the plainer stories that didn’t leave a great impression on me. An unpleasant sales rep, about whom we find out either a bit too much or a bit too little, ends up in a remote hilltop hotel in the forest. Very German. And the hotel is empty apart from him, and strangely old-fashioned, perhaps out of time. So he has an old-fashioned meal and talks to the old-fashioned daughter – no real sexual frisson here, sadly – and goes to bed in an old-fashioned room. And then there’s a hammering sound all night long but no explanation. I found Sabrina Janesch did the spooky much better.

So next morning he gets up and checks out and his car won’t start and he waits for a taxi that never comes and the hotel’s suddenly all locked up and he winds up walking and getting lost in a snowstorm. The height of spookiness is that he comes across a couple he saw on his way to the hotel and now they’re frozen in the snow.

It didn’t rock my boat hugely. Lots of atmosphere that may or may not be inspired by Hitchcock or Du Maurier or maybe Roald Dahl. A few slightly clichéd phrases about snow. Weak ending: “And the cold moonlight was already flooding across the broad, pale landscape in which Karl vanished. As fleeting as a shadow.”

11:02: The critics don't like the contemporary inserts much, but only in a mild, patient way.

We all love it here. Feßmann got a round of applause for her spirited defence of the story. Now Wawerzinek's joining in! He doesn't care if it's kitsch or romantic, he just wanted to get it on paper at last. It is autobiographical, oh yes. He got a round of applause here, we bloody love this guy.

Someone said you can tell Wawerzinek has a lot of experience in life, not like all these young things nowadays. Paul Jandl loves it! Yay! Feßmann loves it anyway. She's just being rude to Fleischanderl.

People here are gossiping about Peter Wawerzinek. They say his reading was strange. Hildegard Keller enthused. Hubert (long-windedly) impressed. But... He thought the means of telling the story were too uniform (as far as I can tell). The contrast between images and plain-talking. Fleischanderl wary of the snow cliché. Hah, wait and see what's coming up, love.

He's reading very well, putting lots of humour in there.

Everyone's very quiet here...

Now he's reading, devoted to a lady who helped him.

This was the best of Stefan’s texts, if you ask me, and the most sophisticated in terms of language. It works with its own rhyme, and rhythm, and imagination, and a wonderfully unreliable narrator, and nature, and more snow (or the first snow and there’s more to come, depending on the order). And with snatches of folk rhymes and tales, and it’s terribly sad but not out-and-out depressing like Zander’s piece. Stefan did a fine job of retaining all those added extras in the English.

A child put into a home, but where? Is it in Russia or in the GDR? In between newspaper-like reports on contemporary cases of child neglect. Abandoned for the West by his mother, the narrator looks back and gradually adjusts his idealised picture of that first journey to the home. Which is heartbreaking, really. “I’m thin. Unbelievably retarded, the home director scolds me. I’m retarded, thinks the boy, who is me.”

That narrator is quite open about being a writer – a likeable lack of guile, I must say. The only thing I don’t like is the end of the passage, which feels slightly tacked on – a medical-style excursus on speech itself. But yes, this is an absolutely impressive piece of writing and I really hope it wins something.

Stefan's text is here. It's very very East German, with in-jokes and all.

Portrait Peter Wawerzinek. A wee bit pseud-y.

Today's going to be slightly different, as I've launched a second social experiment - the Bachmann Prize Semi-Public Viewing. Round my place.

So I've prepared short statements on the remaining texts - by Ingrid Schmidt, Christian Fries, Peter Wawerzinek and Verena Rossbacher. And I'll just put them online when the respective readings begin, and see what else I manage. And no, I won't be uploading them in advance, or I'd probably get arrested.

Friday 25 June 2010

Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, Day 2

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14: 55:
I'm afraid I have to go now. But as most of the audience are presently holding their hands in front of their faces, I have every hope that the critics will rip this text to shreds. It just won't be on live TV. I'll try and catch up tomorrow.

Even Silke's attempt at revenge on Albert the loser ends up with her losing out. I've rarely disliked a text this much. And the saloon-bar psychology in between doesn't help.

14: 51:
"Despite all that had happened, she felt attracted to Wolfgang and she wanted everything to be the way it had been before that evening. She emptied her glass in one and slammed it onto the table. She poured herself another."

So having established that it's not even well written, I felt quite comfortable returning to my feminist reflexes and pronouncing to myself (and now to you, dear reader), that this text would only be even vaguely acceptable if it was written by a woman. Because you'll see, soon, that Silke ends up with a bad case of Stockholm syndrome, which was one of the nastiest things I've read in a long time. Plus the ending is cheap, Agatha Christie formula again. But first you'll have to sit through more of this masochist stuff. I'm sorry.

And at first I was giving the text the benefit of the doubt over my feminist reflexes - I mean, I'm the one who says literature doesn't have to be realistic, right? Whether a woman would do all the stuff Silke ends up doing in this nasty, nasty story is beside the point. But as I got deeper into the translation, I noticed a certain lack of invention in the language. The characters are forever looking at each other, watching each other, eyeing each other, and that's almost all they do except inflict humiliation upon Silke.

Sort of. Or she wants to kiss him afterwards but Wolfgang is a complete and utter black-souled bastard for no particular reason. Albert is confused because it's completely out of character. Albert is a weak-kneed loser who's never been kissed and is also incapable of the slightest resistance, no matter what nasty things Wolfgang does. Now don't forget that they've known each other for many years in their grey suburban Austrian village.

And here come the problems. Silke likes it.

The beginning is pretty much to my personal taste. I appreciate rugged stories of suburban youth. More interesting than academic writers, for my preference. So the three teenagers taking the train into town, laden with sexual tension, are up my alley. And now it gets more dramatic. Wolfgang makes Silke give him a blow job because she owes him €20. OK.

14: 26:
Kleindienst is reading, slightly nervous. I translated this text, and I had a lot of problems with it - mainly its content but also the writing itself. This was the piece I liked least of all. Read the translation here.

Portrait Josef Kleindienst. Music, lights - do these people have no heart for the visually impaired like my poor self? Is it just me, or does nobody listen to what the writers say in these films?

Jandl. If his skin was better I might develop a soft spot for him. Because everything he's said so far is so utterly sensible and wise. He thinks the text works very well as a slice of dark realism. And he thinks Switzerland is crap.

Hubert says it's too smooth. I suspect the critics award minus points to anyone who's studied creative writing (cf. Janesch). Keller picked up on that slap of a first sentence, she says. She thinks the narrator is Ingrid herself. Hm. That makes me feel a bit dumb.

Sulzer's pointing out that it's about ennui and boredom, and the presentation was reminiscent of a lullaby. Heh. Feßmann's impressed. There seem to be two different views: was it a rape or not? I think it's probably relatively clear from that first paragraph. Fleischanderl's criticizing Zander for her lack of fire - a cheap argument for a writer from the DLL creative writing school.

And now it starts to peter out, as I recall. But it's part of a novel manuscript. So let's imagine the accusatory narrator is baby Henry and he doesn't actually die as the text seems to threaten. Or that's what I'd like to think, being a sentimental old bid. The ending here is obscure. I'm still not sure what it means.

Ach, it's written very well but it drags you right down, doesn't it? Which I suppose is a good thing in literary terms. And perhaps if an older woman had written it, who'd actually had a baby herself, it would be different. Because here we come to Ingrid's incredibly detached non-relationship to the child. Indifference. Resistance. Breast infection. The baby a thing, an it.

13: 50:
Camera lingering on attractive bespectacled man in audience. There are touches of optimism: charming Kathi (nice name) is a lovely sweet girl, but possibly only to emphasize Ingrid's misery.

At last a couple of smiles in this very miserable story. Because of course a baby is a wonderful thing. Not that you can tell from this story. But Ingrid manages to rebel and keeps the rapist father's name to herself. I rather admire the dialogues. It's just so incredibly grey and depressing, like life at an East German agricultural school. As such, the form matches the content in an exemplary manner.

So there's an angry narrator piling blame upon the useless pregnant teenager. And of course you wonder who that is, that narrator. The language is a tad sophisticated, with a couple of spots that got rather difficult in translation, but Stefan dealt with them rather nicely.

Rape. Pregnancy. Teenage boredom. Fetch the tissues, this one's not going to be cheerful.

She's reading. Stefan's translation is here. The first sentence is like a slap in the face. I remember this text well. It's very much set in the GDR, lots of colourful sociohistorical vocabulary. Which of course is tricky to translate, but that probably goes without saying. Written in the second person again, but this time it's angry in a different way.

Portrait Judith Zander. Young rural East German. Walking in the rain, writes stories about village life. I think it's probably wise of her to let the voice-over do the talking here. He can say just as much pretentious stuff but it doesn't make her look bad.

Lunch. Next up are Judith Zander and Josef Kleindienst.

So there are two camps: the critics who want more passion and the critics who like the heartless precision. Scholz smiling shyly. He looks like a caricature of a hip astronomer. Ooh, they're getting a bit het up. Spinnen's almost venomous.

Winkels (this is his text choice) says it's a relief to read a scientific perspective. Never mind the emotional bollocks, bring on the astronomy! The fun, Hubert tells us, is in the experiment.

Jandl positive. Sulzer just used the word "flawless". Spinnen agrees but says that's a bad thing. He's addicted to Google Earth! Jeez, get the guy onto Facebook. Spinnen says it's heartless. It is, that was Stefan's objection. I don't particularly care.

Sulzer not quite sure what to make of it. It is odd, isn't it? And he likes it. Keller does too. She likes the satellite perspective with zooms. So do I, did I mention that? Fleischanderl thinks it's not quite consistent all the way through. I'm not sure, it seems so perfectly constructed.

Here comes the denouement! All neatly and tidily written. The guy's... made a big hole... got into it... (and back up to the satellite and the geology)... and he's getting the kid to bury him alive. And nobody gives a shit.

Text is starting to sag in the middle slightly, like the wallpaper trestle table that's just turned up. Apparently they have to be a certain length to get in. So there's a bit of padding in the middle, it seems. Back on track now with bizarre sawing apart of a coffee table.

I'm following Scholz's buddies' live chat at Suddenly they've all gone terribly polite and considerate. It's too complicated to explain who the guy is and why his buddies would be having a live chat.

Here come the ominous details. The hairdresser's only pretending to go to work. I do like this story. Stefan thought it was too clever and calculating, as far as I remember.

And it's genuinely funny. Meat salad - which is funny on its own in the first place - sounds bad because it's meat watered down with something foreign. Touch of the macabre, with one of the neighbours cutting letters out of newspapers to write notes...

This is probably the text that has stayed with me the most out of those I only edited. Because I genuinely enjoyed reading it and editing the translation. I like the bizarre geological details, the distanced narration, the precision, the coolness. And how the Germans love to hate the provinces! Dripping with disregard.

Aleks Scholz reading now, Stefan's translation is here. I hope he won't mind me saying that he hated it. It's called Google Earth and it all takes place from above. As viewed from a satellite, of two neighbouring gardens. Lots of very very precise physical descriptions of gardening and stuff.

Aleks Scholz portrait. He's gone to the dogs! Fascinating information about greyhounds. Guy who spells his name in funny way makes funny video. Ha ha. OK, this is what Aleks Scholz does, it seems. You'll see this in his text. There's no need to actually listen. The text is better than the film though.

Burkhard Spinnen reminds us not to worry if the texts are realistic or not. Thank you. A bit of a dud.

Spinnen's pointing out the teeny-weeny Kafkaesque metaphors. Touches of the medieval, the lack of nutrition is interesting after all. But I think it's consensus that the text doesn't match up with its ambitions. Winkler's defensive adjectives: cautious, modest, tiny, precise, pseudo-precise, gradual, almost too drastic, almost somnambulist, regressive. I'm not convinced.

Feßmann says it gets better on second reading. I don't agree. Hubert Winkler unhappy - this is his choice of text.

Shall I bother writing about this? They don't like it, Sulzer's discovering the botanical inconsistencies. They don't want to be as rude as they ought to.

Paul Jandl is really very clever. And very rude about this text. And goodness me, even Hildegard Keller is making negative comments!

Just as we're all drifting off, Scharnigg introduces a new character! Hooray, the Agatha Christie solution! Introduce new character to save the day at the very end. With Bavarian food as a suitably banal rescue.

Sorry, the phone rang so I've missed a big chunk of this story. But I fear that doesn't matter very much. Starting to wonder how the author's going to get his narrator out of this tricky situation? How about a wee bit of mental health issues in a relationship?

So this is where it gets a little more interesting. Man hiding under the stairs writes mental newspaper article. Watching people go up and down the stairs. Slightly silly, which makes me like the text a little more. Nice observations. But I may be feeling slightly sorry for poor Scharnigg.

Raymond Carver goes to Munich. Where he meets Tilman Rammstedt. Who won the Bachmann Prize. This is what I meant about the junk shop. I get the impression he's studied past winners and picked out the best bits. Guy hides in odd place? Check. Rubbish bins? Check.

A strange pair of shoes outside the journalist's front door. Inside is his partner, M., who doesn't leave the house very much (cf. Mezger). This is the meaningful turning point, and terribly terribly banal.

I have to say, it's rather journalistic. His delivery's not helping much. All terribly banal so far. "Hot meat" was tricky to translate but isn't as exciting as it sounds.

So he's reading now. A journalist writing a piece on climbing the Eiger North Wall. The scene is set in the first sentence, please note. Capable. Stefan's translation is online here.

Portrait Max Scharnigg. He's a journalist and lives in Munich. Writes for "young people". The portrait shows him wandering around a huge municipal junk shop. I'll come back to that in a moment.

They really don't like it. Jandl just said he thought it gave them reason to rehabilitate Sabrina Janesch! At least she didn't use similes, appears to be the logic.

Jandl very very rude about the language. I do find it hard to judge, I suppose, but I'm not sure there is such a thing as "good German". Meike Feßmann doesn't like the first sentence - and it was a tricky one to translate, as I recall. The sex scene's not going down well. Spinnen doesn't like the word "bottom", Feßmann doesn't like the literary similes slap-bang in the middle.

Hildegard Keller is explaining the Roman references. Sulzer's noticed it might not be post-apocalyptic. I don't know whether the others have.

Frau Fleischanderl says it does keep some secrets. Sulzer says so too. It's terribly poetic, we're told. Sulzer is always going to be on the losing side on this jury, by the way, because he writes books that sell well and get made into films. Which makes him hoi polloi.

Hubert Winkels finds it all rather too obvious as well. Full disclosure: I bear a slight personal grudge against Hubert Winkels. So I may not manage to listen very carefully to what he says at great length.

Perhaps it would have been better without the ending tagged on. Sort of Philip Roth-like (I think) - intellectual gets laid, feels happy, period.

Sex scene. Of course she's brown and he's pale. You can imagine it, right? A little dry, the description. He's blushing. A very academic sex scene, which may be intentionally funny.

Oooh. This is the really exciting bit. Shots in the air at the publishing party! Abandoned villa! They've left the Suhrkamp party and moved on to the Young Publishers' bash. Illegal drugs! The exotic woman is talking crap. I can do that too. Perhaps she'd be a good role model. Because... she gets laid (spoiler!)

Ah, here comes the exciting bit. An exotic beauty. Let's not go into the deep Selbsthass in this text. And of course the exotic beauty reads his Tarot cards, because she is earthy and foreign and believes in magic. There are a number of issues here...

And, here we go, the narrator's off to a publishing party. Lightly veiled reference to Frankfurt Book Fair? But it gets quite exciting (although you can't tell yet from his diction). First it's a bit bitchy, which I find often goes down well with German-speaking literary types. I personally don't find it all that fascinating, reading about narcissistic publishing people going to parties. Whether they're dressed as satyrs or not.

Or is it? Is it a cynical, rather transparent portrait of literary academia? Are those towers of the ivory kind? Because - no groaning now - the narrator is a writer. But I think we agreed in advance that it's quite clever.

He's reading now, clearly nervous. This was one of Stefan's more difficult texts. Another post-apocalypse setting. I'm having problems with the accent. Read Stefan's English here.

Starting with Thomas Ballhausen. An Austrian academic. The portrait tells us he's really really into books. You'll notice that in a moment.

Today there are four writers Stefan translated and one that I did. So my insights may be less insightful than yesterday - but I have read all the texts in advance.

Good morning!
I'm bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to go. A brief recap on yesterday:

We heard five writers: Sabrina Janesch, Volker Altwasser, Christopher Kloeble, Daniel Mezger and Dorothee Elmiger. Janesch I liked a lot in advance - unfortunately nobody else did. I've often noticed that English-speaking and German-speaking taste don't always overlap, and this is a case in point. Think of Alina Bronsky, who didn't make much of an impression at Klagenfurt but is getting rave reviews in the States right now for Broken Glass Park. Anyway, Janesch's text works for me (and for Stefan Tobler, the other English translator working on the Klagenfurt texts), because it combines a fascinating subject that would often be dealt with in a rather dry way with suspense and capable spookiness. We shall see what becomes of her novel.

The word on the web is that Altwasser did too much telling and not enough showing, although everyone loved his obscure fish. Kloeble didn't go down well at all, odd material handled insensitively. Daniel Mezger was very good-looking and wrote good angry prose. And Elmiger was everybody's favourite of the day.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Bachmann Prize Day 1

Start at the bottom and scroll up.

So that was Day 1. Join me tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen, for Day 2. I'm not sure I can do Day 3, as I invited loads of friends round for a semi-public viewing. But we shall see. Maybe we'll all join in together or something.

OK, they're convincing me again. The text, they're saying, is an experiment, an adventure. Hartmann von Aue! says Hildegard Keller. Which is totally cool. A quest.

And they like the fact - being readers - that the language builds on non-fiction books, taking that factual tone but playing with it. Plus the quotes as a collage, intertextuality. Which is pretty in right now, huh?

Heh. They like it. What they don't know is that the idea of coal burning underground isn't a play on the oil spill thing, which obviously occurred after it was written. It actually happened somewhere in Pennsylvania last century. But in fact, Elmiger uses it well.

Goodness me, Meike Feßmann likes it. Very original "for such a young writer." Hubert Winkels gives it the thumbs up too (in a very long-winded manner).

It does build momentum as it goes on. Lots of ominous mining accidents. But still very very opaque. Ach, why are my expectations so conventional? While I translated it I know I enjoyed that opaqueness.

Oh, I so want to like it. My memory of it is so much better than her reading of it - but is that because I got so beautifully immersed in it while I translated? Or because she's obviously very nervous and can't do justice to it live? Or does it work better on paper than out loud? Very possibly.

But plot isn't as important as all that. Actually lovely language, a few gorgeous lists. Which were fun to translate too.

And it was tricky to translate, because the tone is rather old-fashioned. In the end I took my cue from a couple of the sources, which were historical texts. But I think (and I apologise for this patronising comment in advance) that to be a little more readable, Elmiger ought to keep things a little simpler. Because ultimately, you come away feeling a little confused - and not in a good way.

So it's a kind of post-apocalypse situation. "We knew little. I didn’t know why I read the books. Fritzi didn’t know what had to be said. At the beginning of summer we simply imagined what it would be like in winter: we’d get lost in the hills due to heavy snowfall!" Books are frowned upon. It's supposed to be intruiging - and it is.

So now she's reading. Not terribly well. Full disclosure: we mailed, and said hello when we met. She was nice. My translation: here. You may find this text slightly confusing. I know I did. But she was very helpful and kindly provided all her sources for me.

Dorothee Elmiger's portrait, wandering around the old airport at Tempelhof. She's 24! Another one who doesn't want to settle down anywhere, like Janesch. Perhaps that's a generation thing. I'm sure it's perfectly possible to write well when you live in one place for a long time.

Even the audience finds it funny that Meike Feßmann's getting so het up about this text. I don't understand her objection to the pleading tone. Her argument: the person who's been left is the one who pleads, not the leaver. Who says? And of course Fleischanderl's argument that we've heard it all before is equally "redundant". Once you've read a few books you've heard everything before, surely? And it comes down to the way they're written, not to the content. Which is what Spinnen is just saying, funnily enough. Unfortunately, the text isn't lyrically interesting enough (in my eyes) to fulfil that criterion.

Burkhard Spinnen (was this his choice?) has a few sensible points about the text's rhythm and artificiality.

Oh, thank goodness. Paul Jandl has pointed out that it's utterly stupid to criticize fiction for being "unrealistic". Good man! The critics have fallen into the trap of talking about the piece's psychology. With which we descend to local library reading group level. Excuse me, but it's true.

Ha, I bet they all fancy him too. Alain Claude Sulzer likes it but finds it too long. Watch them being nicer to him than the others, just because he's fit... Oh. Nope. They think it's redundant.

Nice and depressing. I wouldn't want to read a whole book of it - but I like the disaster movies. Otherwise not overly sophisticated in the literary sense, but quite likeable.

Really, it's OK to write texts in the second person. I know it's not the done thing, but why not write a very emotional accusatory text to a former partner? I know I've been tempted a good few times. OK, I've even done it a few times. But I tend to just keep them to myself. But of course this is fiction, I forget.

13: 28:
So it's a village teacher, not an actor, who's split up with his wife and now she's having mental health issues and he ends up looking after her. Isn't he good and angry?

So now he's reading. In a very dramatic manner. He's an actor, you know. And he gets top points for attractiveness. Stefan Tobler's translation is here.

Oops. Daniel Mezger's portrait. Must summon up my memory of his text. As far as I recall I wasn't overly keen. Oh, no, I remember now. It's terribly dramatic.

Lunch. After the break we get Daniel Mezger and Dorothee Elmiger. Stefan Tobler translated Mezger and I got to do Elmiger.

I think we're all agreed that this is a rather pale text. Not even much to pick apart. Plenty of opportunities for the critics to make the kind of comments about disability that would get them thrown out of the medical profession, however. Very shaky ground here. "Insanity", "handicaps", "dementia", how come he can read? Perhaps I'm a tad too PC but this is all slightly embarrassing.

Alain Claude Sulzer defending his choice. He's not very convincing though. He likes the fact that the situation is so odd. Fleischanderl wants it to be funny. Perhaps that's the problem - we need a hilarious text about adults with learning disabilities...? I think not.

Gosh, Meike Feßmann is ripping the actual writing to pieces. Inconsistencies, inaccuracies. She likes the two characters though.

Ooh, I just saw someone I know in the audience. This text is slightly too long. Quite handy though, as I made a quick trip to the fridge. I can't decide whether the ending makes me sigh or groan or give a patronising smile.

I also find it rather manipulative of the reader's emotions. Which I know is what writers are supposed to do. But all the terrible feeling sorry for the son with the father who exists but can't be a father to him. I suppose it's probably difficult to write about people with mental disabilities without getting patronising and sentimental. I don't think Kloeble manages it here. But at least he doesn't succumb to the temptation to explain how Fred the big kid came to have a son (oops, spoiler!).

But it wasn't much of a challenge to translate, compared to some of the other texts which I'm not allowed to talk about yet. Very plain language, the only difficulty really was getting the tone right for the father's simple sentences. I suppose we translators like texts that play with language a little more. Has Kloeble got a faux-hican going on there?

It's quite ambitious, a rather tangly structure. Albert visits his dad, who is what used to be called retarded. And has three months to live. I like the beginning, which zooms down from the sky to the house. Oh God, please cameraman, don't do that going out of focus thing.

The thing is, when you translate seven short stories in a short length of time and lightly edit the other seven translations, some of them don't stick in your mind very well. And this is one of them. My translation is online now, but they've forgotten to put my name on it. Or maybe I forgot.

Oh look, Christopher Kloeble's made his own portrait. Home videos of children doing leg-slapping dances. He's at the LCB too. Popular background setting. He comes from a family. He has a childhood. This is presumably to make sure we don't get him muddled up with his story. But we'll come to that.

The discussion's going round in circles rather. They don't trust the narrator. Why do they want to?

Cool! Volker H. Altwasser's arguing back! Unfortunately we couldn't hear what he said.

Meike Feßmann defending her choice of this text. She likes the Moby Dick stuff, combined with the modern-day information content.

How funny, they all like that expensive obscure fish just like I do. Is it an allegory? I rather like Hildegard Keller, I must say. Lovely friendly smile. Nice and encouraging. I think what she's trying to say is that the text has just too many issues in it. Pollution, capitalism, enormous wealth. Lots and lots of exclamation marks, she notes. Take out that relationship, she says. She's right, I think.

They think it's too messy. It is a bit, isn't it? Too many perspectives, the critics say. Has potential, but they're laughing about the whole macho stuff. They like the descriptions - and so did I. Burkhard Spinnen really does talk a lot, doesn't he?

Karin Fleischanderl doesn't like those Moby Dick references either.

The shortnose batfish does actually exist, by the way, but I have no idea whether they're really worth a million dollars each. Actually that was what I liked best about this text - that doubt about whether the writer might be playing a huge trick on us with these very expensive obscure fish.

And here we have my other issue: the Moby Dick references. It was fun to translate, actually, lots of challenges (thanks for the comment, Paco). I chose one of the other sailors' names out of Melville too. Which made me feel kind of clever, which I presume is how Volker H. Altwasser feels too.

Are they passing that feather around in the audience? It's so terribly macho, this text. Ah, the dead fish. Dead poisonous fish.

OK, we're kind of getting there now. There's quite a lot of writing about how people feel. The old man's dream of the sea, the fish processor's slightly kitsch thoughts about his wife. The kind of thing you get told off for in creative writing courses, I'm told. (Big glug of water.) Which is not to say you shouldn't do it - hey, why not be iconoclastic about these things? What Volker H. Altwasser doesn't do is fashionable writing.

He's reading now, and you can read my translation here. You'll notice it's about industrial fishing. I've seen him reading before, he's not the greatest performer but he writes well enough. The text was a bit of a bugger to translate, what with all the obscure fish species and nautical vocabulary. I have no idea whether it's used properly or not. At times it seems overly technical to me. There's another issue I had, but we haven't got to that bit yet.

Blimey. OK, now we get a portrait of Volker H. Altwasser. These portraits are annoying me already. Poverty-stricken childhood, writes about endings. Full disclosure: we exchanged a couple of mails about his texts. "Don't expect love novels from him."

Hildegard Keller seems to like some things about it. Subject matter, wanted to hear more about the granddaughter narrator. Look at the poor wee writer, I'd be weeping. Burkhard Spinnen is talking and talking and talking and I'm not sure what he wants to say. No tension? Paul Jandl? Do you have no sensitivity? Sulzer's fighting back. But he's probably on his own here.

Alain Claude Sulzer chose the text. And now he has to defend his choice. A simple man, a simple story. He thinks the promise of spookiness from the beginning is fulfilled. Meike Feßmann likes the atmosphere but thinks it's too much. Likes the double narrator (grandfather, granddaughter), thinks it's too much.

So now the critics have the word. Hubert Winkels is using up lots and lots of words about how he thinks the subject is interesting. But... He thinks it's cheap. He thinks we've seen it all before. He mentioned Stephenie Meyer!

Audience looking a bit restless now that grandfather's found the rotting Nazi in the attic.

Why is someone wearing a feather in their hair? God, I really do like this story. I'm a sucker for spooky. "But as he stood in front of the settee his last remaining strength was only enough to shove the thickest tendrils aside and lie down on the bed of leaves." It's not that she uses particularly clever language - and perhaps she's not the first to use nature/fright devices - but it works.

Quite a lot of backs of grey heads in the audience. Absolute silence. It's getting spooky.

Doesn't she look lovely? I'm completely biased.

Janesch is reading. I really like her text, but it gets better as it goes along. Everyone's reading along with her. It's about Polish farmers arriving in Silesia from now Ukrainian Galicia to settle the abandoned farmyards after the war. So lots of European history, fates affected by political decisions. But wait, it gets odder.

Portrait of Sabrina Janesch. Sitting on the LCB terrace, looking at blossoms. Polish-German identity, writing. "Makes sensible stuff collide with spookiness." Full disclosure: I've met her and I think she's absolutely lovely. My translation is here.

We're starting off with three writers I translated: Sabrina Janesch, Volker Altwasser and Christopher Kloeble. So I have opinions on these three.

Right now they're introducing the critics in the jury. They look suitably sheepish.

So here's what I'm doing.

I've rigged up my laptop in front of the TV and I'll try and share my thoughts on the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition. It starts in one minute and I'll just update this post as I go along. Oh, here we go.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Your Chance To Shine

Call for Submissions – no man’s land # 5

Contemporary German-language fiction and poetry in English translation.
Deadline: August 20, 2010.

no man’s land, the online journal for contemporary German literature in translation, is seeking submissions for its 2010 issue.

For prose, send up to 3 texts (stories or self-contained novel excerpts, max. 4,000 words each) by one or different contemporary* writers. For poetry, send work by up to 3 poets, each to a maximum of 5 poems. No simultaneous submissions, please, and – with some possible exceptions** – no previously-published translations. The deadline is August 20, 2010 (postmark date), and we will inform contributors by late September 2010; the issue will go online in November. We regret that we are unable to offer honoraria.

Please include your contact information, biographical and publication information (for both translator and author) and a copy of the original. Also, please provide proof of permission from the original publisher and/or author – whoever holds the rights to the piece (this could be a copy of a letter, or forward us an e-mail).

Submissions should be sent to no man’s land, PO Box 02 13 04, 10125 Berlin, Germany. If you can include the original text in file format (PDF or other), submissions can be sent electronically to Isabel Cole at

For more information, visit our website at, and feel free to contact us at the above e-mail address.

We look forward to reading your work!

The Editors, no man’s land

*Defined more or less as writers currently active, or active in the later 20th/early 21st century. When in doubt, query!

** We are willing to make exceptions for translations that have appeared previously in very limited circulation and that we feel deserve a new audience. Again, please feel free to query.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Counting Down to the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize

The excitement is mounting. Only two days to go. The German-speaking world's premiere competition for emerging writers, known as the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, is on our doorstep. It takes place in Klagenfurt, Austria, but you can follow its progress online and on TV. Basically, 14 writers get to read unpublished texts and a group of critics rips them to pieces live. Then the jury argue amongst themselves over who was the least bad - bearing in mind that each of the critics chose two of the texts themselves. The winner gets €25,000 and a pat on the head, then they have another argument about who was the second least bad, etc. etc.

I mentioned a while ago that I was translating half of the entries. And I even managed to keep schtumm about who's in the running, despite being in possession of top-secret knowledge. What I haven't managed is to contain my envy over anyone who's going along to watch the fun live. I even had to cancel my membership of a certain Facebook group because it was so frustrating. I kind of don't want to know what all the literary types will be doing while they're there - swimming in lakes and playing football and lounging around in deck chairs printed with Ingeborg Bachmann quotes and generally enjoying themselves while we mere mortals have work and family commitments and have to... You get the picture, right?

But I shall be watching from afar. As will the good people of Lesemaschine, who will be posting comments on the readings as they happen. I'm not sure I'll manage that, what with the work and family commitments and having to... But I do have the almost unique advantage of having read all the texts in advance, and I shall try and share my insights and impressions as and when time allows.

And should my work and family commitments permit, next year I'm really going to try and go and bask in the literary limelight and sit there with my laptop and my sunglasses and share my impressions in real time. And maybe some of the other translators involved might be able to come and we could sit there looking smug because we know exactly what's coming. Wouldn't that be fun?

By the way, if you want to get into the true spirit of things, you can vote for your favourite somewhere on the website. I just can't work out where yet.

Friday 18 June 2010

Ulrich Ditzen in Company in Berlin

Much more excitingly, Bookslut and Dialogue Berlin held a fantastic event last night to big up Michael Hofmann's recent translation of Hans Fallada's Jeder stirbt für sich allein. I won't go into the vagaries of evening childcare solutions here - suffice to say I was very pleased to make it.

Sharmaine Reid of Dialogue and Jessa Crispin of Bookslut are a bit of a dream team, two women with burning passions for books and the get-up-and-go of a herd of rhinos. And I'm not just saying that because they're my friends. This wasn't their first joint event, but it was the first to focus on a German book in translation. And they went to a great deal of trouble to organise a very impressive evening of Anglo-American-style literary entertainment.

It started with readings in German - very expressive with much finger-pointing and Berlin dialect, a pleasant change from the Charlie Brown's teacher-style delivery you often get over here - and English. Bizarrely, the readers were interrupted by something Hans Fallada and his characters could never have imagined – large numbers of gays and lesbians in sailor suits partying on barges outside the windows of the gorgeous venue, the Direktorenhaus. If you happen to organise literary events in Berlin, I can highly recommend the place by the way, provided Cristopher Street Day isn't coming up.

After this brief intermission, Jessa interviewed Fallada's oldest son Ulrich Ditzen. A former lawyer, 80-year-old Ditzen had us all rather charmed. He talked about growing up with his father, how he was a great teller of bedtime stories and an obsessive writer who set himself the near impossible target of never writing less than the previous day. He refuted the claim on the book jacket that his father could have left Nazi Germany. Fallada had two families there to support, Ditzen with his brother and mother installed in rural Mecklenburg, and his second wife and daughter in Berlin. He saw no way to leave without plunging them all into poverty and insecurity - as in fact happened to many writers in exile.

Ditzen also talked about how the book came about, based like all of his father's writing on fact. He was a little coy about the involvement of the writer Johannes R. Becher, at the time a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, in providing his father with the Gestapo case file on which the novel is based. I find it interesting that Alone in Berlin has been so enthusiastically received in Britain and the US, and I think one reason is that its author is untainted by political scandal in a way that almost all other German writers who tackled the subject of resistance to the Nazis weren't. In fact the book could be placed next to many others by East German writers who went on to get drawn into Cold War cultural policy. Anna Seghers, the writer of the outstanding The Seventh Cross and Transit, is just one case in point. After her return from Mexican exile, she became a functionary in the East German system and ended up making many questionable literary and political decisions in her later years. Fallada, of course, died in 1947, before the GDR was even founded.

The questions from the floor revealed how mixed the audience was - from Germans with perfect English who grew up with Fallada's children's books to new arrivals obviously (how shall I put this?) making their first acquaintance with German literature and history. Ditzen fielded them with aplomb, only answering the bits he wanted to and getting really rather flirtatious towards the end. He gave the impression of being a man with a strong mind who genuinely loved his father and still loves his work. And he highly recommended Fallada's Wolf Among Wolves about 1920s Germany - his best book, he told us. I bought the newly revamped English version, and found it was originally translated by Philip Owens with modern additions by Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs.

Ditzen then had to leave, but the evening was rounded off with more readings from the original and translation. All in all, it was a great success - standing room only, happy punters, books sold. I hope there'll be more opportunities to present translations from German in the Bookslut/Dialogue events series - which seems like a logical thing to do in Berlin – and I can well recommend their other readings too.

Kehlmann's Fame Takes Prix Cervenne Du Roman Européen

The French have a prize for the best European novel, and have awarded it to Daniel Kehlmann's Ruhm (Fame, as Carol Brown Janeway's forthcoming will be called). Boyd Tonkin waxes lyrical about it and makes me feel rather envious that I'm not on any international literary prize juries in today's Independent. You can also see photos of Kehlmann and his lovely French translator Juliette Aubert at the official award website. Nice to see a translator basking in the limelight and EU arts funding.

You can read my review here. I must say my memory of the book has faded very fast indeed and all my brain can conjure up about it now is the fact that I found it vaguely disappointing.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Siegfried Lenz Marries at 84

Is it just me, or is this the most gorgeous photo? Hey, it's not just me, the editor-in-chief of Germany's high-end glossy mag Bunte thinks so too. Siegfried Lenz, 84-year-old man of German letters, recently married his neighbour Ulla Reimer (74). According to the article, she helped him get over his wife's death and deal with the ensuing writer's block.

More, in fact: she took over from his former wife and typed up his manuscript for A Minute's Silence, which you can now read in English, translated by Anthea Bell. And funnily enough, it's a love story too.

That's not going to happen to the younger generation of writers, is it? No sympathetic looks over the typewriter, no eyelash-batting queries about the dictaphone. That whole Daddy Warbucks/Grace Farrell thing is out of the question. Maybe they'll all fall for the computer repair man or something.

Monday 14 June 2010

Wanted: Lively Young Men. On A Translators' Get-Together

It's that time of year again. Every summer the German literary translators meet up in the small medieval town of Wolfenbüttel for workshops and socialising. This year there were about 170 of us, plus a smattering of editors and interested parties.

The fun starts on the Friday with a lecture, this time an impromptu talk on the influence of translation on the European image of the Orient in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, the "translators" of 1001 Nights and other texts did more than a little compiling and inventing, which has a knock-on effect to this day - Aladdin and Sinbad, for example, aren't actually mentioned anywhere in the existing Arabic manuscripts. The Arabic translator Hartmut Fähndrich did a great job of filling in for a speaker gone AWOL, entertaining and informing us in his own inimitable way.

Friday night is time for readings. This year I attended the block on fantasy - not a genre I'm terribly informed about. Stephenie Meyer's translator Silke Hachmeister had us giggling with her reading from the fourth volume of teenage vampire love, and I was particularly impressed by Angela Plöger's reading from Troll, Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo's utterly literary love story with a twist. As always, I was bowled over by the effort translators put into their work, even in cases where the text may not be quite up to Shakespearean standards.

And on to Saturday, which is workshop day. In the afternoon I attended VDÜ-chairman Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel's session on moderating, which was productive and reassuring. I now know that even consummate professionals wet their pants before going on stage. So it's not just me, then.

My personal highlight, however, was the morning session with Arche/Atrium editor Tim Jung. Entitled "How to help your translation to success", the workshop looked at what translators can do to push their books. Now this subject was not uncontroversial. A few of the participants were very sceptical about the level of support they get from publishers - and whether it's the translator's job to help market their books. At first I thought it might be a generation conflict - certainly in the past, translators were widely treated as lowly cogs in the works, expected to deliver the text and shut up. So many of my more experienced colleagues tend to be rather cynical and resignatory, unsurprisingly so.

But then Jung told us what his - admittedly small-scale - publishing house does with its translators: they ask them for feedback. About the title, about how to describe the book to their sales reps, about how to sum the book up on an advertising poster, about all sorts of possible marketing stuff. And one very experienced translator told us how she'd felt about that: at first she was irritated, put out her spines as she said. She'd given up making suggestions and decided it wasn't her job and wasn't her problem. But in fact, this new attitude on the publisher's part is a sign of respect. For Jung, translators are authentic experts on their books and have a great deal more to offer publishers than the basic translation of a text.

This is something I feel very much a party to. OK, I translate into English, which makes me some kind of very exotic creature. I'm also a person who can get rather enthusiastic about things (as you may have noticed). And I don't always ask what's in it for me - partly because I genuinely enjoy sharing my enthusiasm with others, so I do get an immediate emotional reward for pushing my books. Of course it's a delicate balance. Translators are right to be wary about being exploited for free. I can understand the reaction one colleague expressed - that if an advertising exec thought up a slogan they'd get huge amounts of money, but a translator ends up doing it for nothing. Ideally, of course, translators get royalties, so it's in our own interest to sell more books. Unfortunately, it's not always that simple - but let's not go there.

I'm seeing more and more cases of translators being treated as experts on their books, rather than just lowly ferrymen transporting the text from one language bank to the other. Ulrich Blumenbach, for example, has been feted for his David Foster Wallace translations into German, Sarah Adams gave all sorts of interviews about her Faiza Guene book, and Susan Bernofsky does a great deal to share her love of Robert Walser's work. And German publishers are beginning to credit translators more prominently, some (including Arche/Atrium) including their brief bios after the writers' in their catalogues and the books themselves and even using their names as part of their advertising material, in the case of prominent people like Harry Rowohlt, Henning Ahrens and Silke Hachmeister.

I'd say that as we become more confident and organised as a profession - with institutions like the VDÜ or the PEN Translation Committee behind us - so the publishers and the media in general are coming to view us with greater respect. I was recently invited onto a panel and asked to write an article for a literary magazine, I've been asked for radio interviews and interviewed by other bloggers. And love german books has been featured in the Perlentaucher online literature and culture magazine three times (to my great delight - I nearly went to their office to thank them on bended knee, but they'd moved away. It'd probably have been embarrassing anyway.). My daughter thinks I'm famous.

To my mind, we translators can only embrace this development. And by helping to promote our books, be it on our websites, in email footers, on Facebook, at readings, through newsletters, by writing articles or translators' notes, or by whatever comes into our heads, we are ultimately confirming this new-found respect.

So. To round off the report, the Saturday evening was party time. Vera Bischitzky was awarded the Helmut M. Braem Prize for her new translation of Gogol's Dead Souls and gave a brief reading. Then there was food and then myself and my colleague Steph Morris magically transformed into DJs Lang 'n' Scheidt and made all those translators dance like their shoes were on fire until 3 in the morning. Much fun was had.

Having been forced to stay up past my bedtime, I didn't really appreciate the Sunday morning event, a talk between the German writer Wilhelm Genazino and his French and Dutch translators Anne Weber and Gerrit Bussink. But apparently it was very entertaining. Anne Weber also writes her own novels in French and German and then translates them herself, which she said tends to make them much shorter and more precise. And Bussink told us he only ever translates via dictaphone, apparently a great method for keeping the language real.

Finally, there was an appeal - the organisers of the weekend are seeking lively young men to join their ranks for next year. I too would not be adverse to a few more lively young men in Wolfenbüttel. Translation is a female-dominated profession, for reasons I won't go into here. So our get-togethers are veritable harems of highly attractive and intelligent women from 25 to 75. Which is great, don't get me wrong. But sometimes it's nice to have a bit of a garnish to look at.

For another view of the events, check out the VDÜ's Twitter thing.

Thursday 10 June 2010

John E. Woods Making It in Berlin

Top super-duper medal-winning super-charming good-looking über-talented oh my God I'm running out of praise translator John E. Woods is interviewed by Kristen Allen in The Local.

I rather admire him.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Ingo Schulze on the Terrace

Before everyone in Berlin switches their attention to the terraces as the World Cup kicks off, Ingo Schulze last night had the honour of opening the outdoor season at the Literary Colloquium. Now if you've never been to the Literary Colloquium in Berlin, you must right this wrong as soon as possible. Even if you live in Michigan or Montevideo. I've said it before but I'll say it again: it is the world's most beautiful literary venue, a lakeside villa on the edge of Berlin where writers and translators can stay. And despite the opulent surroundings, everyone who works there is very friendly and welcoming.

It's fine and dandy in the winter, but in the summer the LCB comes into its own. Imagine a balmy evening on the terrace, sipping wine and listening to a talented writer as the sun sets over the Wannsee. There may be few pleasures more innocent. Ahh.

Anyway, Ingo Schulze has written a new book of short stories, Orangen und Engel. Allow me to insult your intelligence by translating that - it means Oranges and Angels. And it's all about Italy, where such things grow on trees. I forgot to look at the book, but it's illustrated with photos by Matthias Hoch. Incidentally, Schulze's previous short story collection is just out in English, no doubt expertly translated by John E. Woods, under the title One More Story. Click on that link to make your way to an excerpt. His gorgeous novel set in the heady summer of 1989, Adam and Evelyn, is also coming up in English at some point.

The thing about Schulze's prose is that it appears deceptively simple. But as you delve deeper, you find nuances of meaning and humour that make you realise just how clever the man is. He's also very nice, and very political, and was recently made president of the Berlin Academy of Arts. So his book on Italy is rather an orange to be peeled and dissected, discovering the sweetness inside. Oh, I do so love a laboured metaphor.

To start the evening, Schulze talked to the critic Ursula März about the German and his own relationship to Italy. Ever since Goethe, the Germans have had the hots for the place. And this year the Villa Massimo in Rome celebrates its hundredth anniversary as a state-owned hangout for German writers and artists. Ingo Schulze and his family spent 2007 there, working very hard apparently. And strangely enough, the narrator in Orangen und Engel is also a writer staying at the Villa Massimo with his family. As so often, Ingo Schulze plays his game of pretending the narrator is Ingo Schulze. Which is always fun.

Schulze read a long piece from the collection, featuring a Romanian man who tells the narrator a story every writer wants to hear. The political undertones were very clear but never overwhelmed the story, which had me transfixed from about a third of the way in. This is far from a romanticised view of Italy, despite featuring Latin lovers and car accidents. Afterwards, I talked to a jet-setting professional hair colorist about whether the story was feasible. No, even the apparently realistic parts aren't overly likely to have ever happened to anyone. But surely that's the joy of telling stories - and of being told them? Because in stories, anything can happen. And in Ingo Schulze's stories, it often does.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Berlin, Expats and Book Nights

Berlin. It's a pretty great place to live. Many people seem to have discovered this, and come and stay for a while. Take Amelia Atlas, for example, who writes about Berlin novels in n+1 as if she were an expert on the place. A bit of poking about on the internet reveals she spent a year here. No doubt a year with a great deal of leisure time, judging by her pertinent comments on expats in the city, but still - a year isn't terribly long to get to know a place.

I personally find all these pronouncements on the nature of Berlin a little phoney, no matter who makes them. You know, a city on the cusp of something or other, wearing some crap on its sleeve, eternally insert-portentous-adjective-here. I know, because I've done it myself. What these sweeping statements ignore is the fact that shitloads of people live here, all caught up in their own lives. So some of them like to hang out at exhibition openings, while others prefer to spend their evenings on their balconies or maybe at the pub. Or watching telly. Because for every hip expat in Prenzlauer Berg (that's two words, guys), there are about 5000 bog-standard ordinary people out there just working in offices or on the dole or, I don't know, running the country or something.

So that expat perspective, as Atlas does in all fairness admit in her piece, is pretty warped. It really isn't the case for non-expats that "everybody you meet is either a graphic designer or a DJ," honestly. And yes, I know I'm not German either and I'm verging on racism here, or at the very least snobbism. But from my perspective as someone who has at least lived here for a long time, I am duty bound to look down my nose at these naive arrivistes. It makes me feel better about not leading a life of non-stop glamour and disco dancing or whatever they do, OK?

So to assume my secret Norman Tebbit persona, I have one piece of advice for anyone caught in the trap of only ever meeting graphic designers: Learn the language. Those few years of studious fervour will pay off. Because then you can go to literary events.

Thursday, for instance, sees the modestly named Berlin Book Night at the Kulturbrauerei. Linked to some congress or other, it's an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza on ten stages or something, featuring love german books faves Jan Böttcher, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Terezia Mora, Jan Faktor and a guy who was once nice to me at a party so he can only be good even though I've never read any of his books, Florian Werner. And lots of other writers and musicians.

Note, however, that I am being deliberately vague. That's because I can't go. So there's no point in investigating the line-up too closely as it'd only cause more tears on my pillow. Please, dear organisers of literary events, I have spent many many years learning German and seeing as the entire world revolves around me, you could at least do me the courtesy of organising your literary events on evenings when I don't have problems with childcare. Thank you.

Friday 4 June 2010

Interview: Shelley Frisch

I first met the wonderful non-fiction translator, activist and Germanist Shelley Frisch in line for the ladies' toilet at the Frankfurt Book Fair. One of her books recently won an award, and that seemed like the perfect opportunity to interview her for love german books. Everything else, I think, is self-explanatory.

Shelley, Fromms won a gold medal at the Independent Publishers' Book Awards. Tell us about the book.

Fromms, by Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer, is the story of Julius Fromm, a Jewish entrepreneur whose condom manufacturing company in Berlin is seized by Hermann Göring in the 1930s and given as a present to Göring’s godmother in exchange for two medieval castles, while the Fromms flee to England, stripped of their possessions, their company, their adopted homeland, and even the right to continue using the family name when they rebuild the business in London. This true story is a powerful case study of how state-fueled greed coupled with pernicious ideology undid a man’s life’s work while undoing the moral fiber of an entire society.

The book’s umbrella of themes encompasses life in Weimar, the emerging field of “sexology,” the international history of condoms (I now know what kind Casanova wore!), the condom manufacturing process, brothel etiquette and aesthetics, and, first and foremost, the agony of expropriation and exile from Hitler’s Germany. There are moments of levity, such as Peter Lorre’s first encounter with Alfred Hitchcock (Peter Lorre was a friend of Max Fromm) interspersed with harrowing stories, such as the scandalous journey of the Dunera, a British ship that imprisoned Jewish and other refugees and brought them to Australia under concentration camp-like circumstances. One of the passengers on that ship was Julius Fromm’s son Edgar Fromm. Edgar’s son Ray and I were in touch by phone several times while I worked on the translation, and Ray contributed a wonderful afterword to the American edition to update the story with the poignant and revealing perspective of a family member.

And how was the ceremony?

The ceremony for the Independent Publishers’ Book Awards (known, for some reason, as the IPPY Awards) was grand fun. It took place in a lavish party space, a disco-like setting, on West 57th Street in Manhattan, with all kinds of bells (that is, food) and whistles (drink). Quite a nice change from my cramped little study where the text came into being! Fromms won the gold medal in the history category. If I’m not mistaken, it was the only translation to win a prize in any category.

When winners were called up to the stage to receive their awards, true hilarity ensued. Male awardees got to pose for a photo op with a scantily clad woman in stilettos; female awardees like me posed with a playboy-type boy toy. The medal he hung around my neck was so heavy and humongous that I had trouble remaining upright (slight hyperbole here… but it is large and heavy).

You've translated a long list of non-fiction titles from German. I know each book presents its own challenges - what were the big issues with Fromms?

Every book I’ve translated poses seemingly insurmountable challenges. Just when I think that a new project will be easier than the last, I find that it’s in fact devilishly difficult, with medium and message inextricably intertwined, and thus fundamentally resistant to translation.

In Fromms, one set of lexical challenges centered on the crazy quilt of Nazi bureaucratic titles for all kinds of offices that sound ludicrous (and worse) to our ears. There was also an overarching issue of tone, since the book alternates between harrowing, heart-rending stories of foiled escapes across borders and sober, detailed lists, such as the prices fetched by household objects auctioned from the Fromms’s home in Berlin.

How did you get into translation in the first place?

My path to translation from the German came via my studies of exile literature, particularly of the Mann family, where I found myself drawn to the linguistic dimension of their transculturation. Right from my first published translation—a piece in Simon Wiesenthal’s now-classic volume The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness—I have gravitated to subjects at the margins of their respective societies. The themes in my translated books span history to histrionics, psychology to physics, pre-Socratic philosophy to pilgrimages, marooned refugees from Hitler’s Germany to Maroon colonies in Jamaica, castrati to concentration camps to Communism and now—to round out an alliterative set, I suppose—condoms. Translating non-fiction entails a dizzying leap to instant quasi-expertise on the widest variety of themes.

You've said that you like to improve upon your texts occasionally. What do you do and how far do you think we translators ought to go along that road?

This topic is a hornet’s nest! The range of theories along what I call the literal-to-literary spectrum is vast, and the stuff of flared tempers. At one extreme, you have George Steiner warning you against “betrayal upward” (which he defines as enhancing a text’s stylistic quality or emotional scope) and claiming that all translation is per se “tawdry.” You also have Vladimir Nabokov worrying that his translations are “not ugly enough” until they are fully “defowlerized” (his coinage for “uglified”). Way over at the other end of the spectrum is the newest kid on the theory-of-translation block, Douglas Hofstadter, whose mantra of “poetic lie-sense” positively demands taking major liberties in translating texts.

I don’t think of myself as a card-carrying member of any “translation camp,” but every text entails navigating between the Scylla of literal rendition and the Charybdis of literary enhancement. While Hofstadter takes quite outrageous liberties at times (translating the French “chamade” as “mad ache” simply because they are anagrams!!), I do agree that the translator should inject a voice of his or her own to allow a text to come alive in its new linguistic garb. And I see no case for “defowlerizing” a text, or providing the stilted, near-interlinear translations Nabokov promotes (not that he practiced what he preached, luckily). After all, one of the cruelest possible barbs about a writer’s style in English is to accuse a text of sounding “translated from the German.”

When I read over my many drafts, I vocalize and subvocalize the text, and, like a cook at a stove, try a dash of alliteration here, a pinch of sibilants there, and just a smidgen of contrast intonation to bring out the flavor of my sentences. Above all, I need to feel confident that the end result does not read like “translationese.”

Translators run hot and cold on the issue of whether to contact and bring the author into the translation process. I always seek out the author, especially if I think textual incursions might be advisable. Ideally—and typically—a productive symbiosis results, and several of my authors have become close friends. One of my translator friends holds the view that “the only good author is a dead author.” Not me; I like mine alive!

What has been your favorite book to translate?

My favorite translation project is generally whichever one’s just been published! After you submit the manuscript, a good year passes before the book sees the light of day, and amnesia sets in regarding all the painstaking research and quests for the right shades of meaning. Just when you’ve practically forgotten you ever worked on the book at all, suddenly it’s out, and you get to ogle it in bookstores, linger on its Amazon rankings, and savor some glowing adjectives in reviews.

My translation of Stefan Klein’s Da Vincis Vermächtnis (Leonardo’s Legacy, published in Germany by S. Fischer, and in New York by Da Capo Press) came out just last month. It is certainly my current favorite! I am in awe of Stefan Klein’s deft presentation of Leonardo’s scientific and artistic achievements in the context of the Renaissance and beyond. The author himself figures prominently in the book, retracing Leonardo’s steps through the various places the artist-scientist lived, worked, and conducted research.

I know you're a dedicated campaigner for translators and their rights and recognition. What would you say at a private audience with Obama?

Obama has his hands full with the oil spill, the economy, two wars, and the Tea Partiers. I’ll spare him my yes-we-cans regarding the translation profession until he’s past those exceedingly troubling issues. In the meantime, I’d like to appeal to editors to recognize that translators craft the words that their readers read. Robert Weil at W.W. Norton, one of my all-time favorite editors, has stated in the pages of Publishers Weekly that his translators are his authors in the United States. And along with the other members of the PEN Translation Committee, I am fighting the good fight for proper remuneration for and recognition of our profession.

As it now stands, our best reward—and it is a very fine reward indeed, though not in monetary terms—comes when the book is published and reviewers remark on the work of the translator. We translators then become collectors of adjectives. Among the ones I’ve savored in reference to my own translations are “fluid, flawless” (Publishers Weekly), “evocative, idiomatic” (LA Times), “crisp, heroic” (New York Times), “felicitous” (New Republic), and my personal two favorites: “wonderfully supple” (thank you, William Gass!) and “zingy, dramatic” (thank you, Michael Dirda!).

What are you working on now?

I’m now translating volume two of a projected three-volume Kafka biography, by Reiner Stach. This project is most closely allied to my own area of scholarship (20th-century German literature), and it is meticulously researched and beautifully written. Each of the three volumes is quite hefty (volume two alone exceeds 700 pages!), so this’ll take a while. My identification with this project has already taken dramatic turns. A few weeks ago, I started sneezing and coughing uncontrollably. Hay fever, you say? No—it was because Kafka had just been diagnosed with tuberculosis!

I'd like to say many thanks again to Shelley for taking the time for the interview, for sharing so much wisdom and for being such an inspiring role model in general.

Update: contrary to popular interpretation, the interview didn't actually take place in the ladies' restroom last October - we conducted it between Berlin and Princeton last week via email. Sorry to have been a little misleading.