Tuesday 31 August 2010

Hotlist Shortlist

They've announced the 15 final titles in the running for the German-language indie book prize "Hotlist". The winner will be announced at a party at the book fair. I'm looking forward to it but I won't tell you who my favourite is.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards

Look out for the first ever Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards in the States. They should be presented in February 2011, to one long work and one short work of speculative fiction translated into English and published in 2010. The purpose of the awards, they say, is "to promote the fiction of non-English-speaking authors and to highlight the valuable work done by translators."

One German book is nominated so far: The War of the Dwarves by Markus Heitz, translated from the German by Sally-Ann Spencer (Orbit), originally published in 2004.

I think this is utterly cool.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Friedrich Christian Delius: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman

You know how you remember the first single you ever bought? Or the first band you ever saw live? Well, Friedrich Christian Delius was the first German writer I ever saw reading. This was back in 1994, when I was an exchange student. Professor Frank Hörnigk had organised a colloquium at Berlin’s Humboldt University, inviting a different Berlin-based writer to read to students and answer their questions every week. It felt absolutely revolutionary to me – I was used to the slightly dry stuff of German Studies in the UK, where I don’t think we read a single book by a living writer in the first two years. And suddenly there they were – actual real live German writers!

And Friedrich Christian Delius was the first of them, and he was genuinely entertaining, his humour struggling all the way through my undergraduate comprehension difficulties. So it may well be thanks to him, and to Professor Hörnigk, that love german books even exists today. And to Conrad Zuse of course – about whom Delius wrote his most recent novel, die frau, für die ich den computer erfand. Which is an odd, imaginative fictional interview with the disgruntled German inventor of the computer and well worth reading, if only to find out what Byron has to do with it.

His Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is out any day now from Peirene Press, translated by Jamie Bulloch, and Delius will be reading in London in mid-September. It’s the third ever book from Peirene Press, the British independent publishers specialising in contemporary European literature in English translation… of less than 200 pages. As they point out, “Peirene's books have a plot to pull the reader along BUT rhythm, structure and language are equally, if not more so, important.”

That certainly applies here – rhythm is very much it. The novella consists of a single sentence, broken up merely by indentations. That’s something Delius has done before, in his The Pears of Ribbeck, translated back in 1991 by Hans Werner, a book about what the fall of the Iron Curtain does to a rural East German community. In that case, as I recall, the tone is angry, an enjoyable rant. Here, the tone is very different.

The story is about Delius’ own mother, stranded heavily pregnant in Rome in early 1943. Her newly-wed husband has been called up to the Wehrmacht in Africa and she is left alone in this unfamiliar place, at least protected from Allied bombs, she believes, because nobody would harm the Holy City. And nicely fed and cared for by Protestant nuns and the German community. As she walks across Rome to a concert in a church, her mind wanders and we share her thoughts. So the pace is a leisurely stroll, ending up in a climax as the protagonist listens to the concert, moved to tears by the music, her language and her faith.

Delius has rather nicely wormed his way into a pregnant woman’s mind, with all the attendant problems of short attention span and anxiety. We learn gradually about a deeply religious young woman, lonely and longing for her husband. Initially, I found myself identifying with her, forgetting for a while the political circumstances at the time. And then Delius begins to add details of the small injustices in Rome, the tiny rations for Italians compared to the privileged Germans, the cafés closed for want of coffee and the poverty. He introduces another female character, the mother’s roommate Ilse, who prefers the company of Italian kitchen staff over that of the diplomats’ wives among the German ex-pats.

We begin to see how terrifyingly naïve the heroine is – “perhaps there were even Jews in Rome, she did not know, she could not recall having seen any, maybe wearing yellow stars on their coats, and she had not heard the thorny word Jew uttered by any of her Roman acquaintances, not even Ilse”. Of course she has been brainwashed by growing up under the Nazis, and Delius describes the draw of the League of German Girls with its campfire camaraderie. There are hints, however, that others around her are different, not just Ilse. Her husband Gert is a pastor, as is her father, and there is a brief mention of the Confessing Church, an opposition movement within Germany’s Protestant church.

This is perhaps one of the difficulties with the book, which might have benefited from a timeline or an appendix. I found it assumed a great deal of knowledge of German history and geography – and of what happened in Rome in 1943, namely German occupation, Allied bombings and the deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz. Delius deliberately alludes to these coming events in the course of the narrative, adding an extra element of threat, but I feel they’re hard to spot for English readers. A whole level of understanding, perhaps not crucial to appreciate the book but still adding depth, would be missing. It’s not so much the translation that causes losses as the cultural transplantation from Germany to the UK.

But ah, the translation! Jamie Bulloch has done a marvellous job, writing ever so slightly old-fashioned English to suit the narration. He deals well with the single-sentence structure, something I can imagine might have caused the odd headache. German is the perfect language for the single-sentence book, although Open Letter is publishing French writer Mathias Énard’s Zone in December, this time stretching the boundaries of sentence structure over a daunting 517 pages – no mean feat for translator Charlotte Mandell. Truncating long, complicated German sentences is hard for translators to resist, although I personally don’t think it’s always necessary. But no, Bulloch has made the book a smooth read despite that pretty major obstacle, and after a while the lack of full stops felt entirely natural.

The publisher Meike Ziervogel writes on the (rather beautiful) jacket: “…it’s a compelling and credible description of a ‘typical’ young German woman during the Nazi era. If we can relate to her we come close to understanding the forces that were shaping an entire generation.”

I have to admit I found it difficult to relate to the mother, and I’m not quite sure that was Delius’ intention. But he does address the subject of women in the Third Reich in an admirably subtle way, showing us a woman who feels her only role is as a mother and who longs for peace – as long as it’s “her side” that wins the war. At the same time, she wishes her more critical husband were there to help her understand what’s going on in the world. What the writer doesn’t do, I feel, is absolve his mother of all guilt.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is beautifully written, a naïve contemplation on Rome during the Third Reich on the surface, a deeper look at how people ticked at the time below that, and ultimately a testament to the power of faith, if only to distract from the anxiety of life under a dictatorship. The form is perfectly matched to the content - something you can't say every day. I'm very pleased to see the book in such an excellent English translation and wish it well in the UK.

Thursday 26 August 2010

House of World Cultures Takes A Stand on Sarrazin

Thilo Sarrazin is a former Berlin politician now on the board of the Bundesbank. He's also well known for voicing opinions on poverty, integration and immigration that don't sit well with his membership of the Social Democratic Party - in fact, the right-wing populist Pro Deutschland movement recently extended him an invitation to join and the NPD has also praised his ideas.

He caused a furore last year with his comments along the lines of Muslims or Turkish people in Berlin being only good as greengrocers - as I recall, and I'm loath to research this nasty business properly, so you'll have to bear with me - and before that by comparing benefit claimants to rats. Now Sarrazin has written a whole book. And you know what? I'm not going to link to it. It's called Deutschland schafft sich ab - Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen, and it's published by Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt. Which, incidentally, is part of the Bertelsmann empire that has been subject to political scrutiny and headlines of its own too, as Publishing Perspectives reports.

Sarrazin's book comes out at the end of this month, but has been previewed in the BILD tabloid and Spiegel magazine. Upon which even the CDU's Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble distanced themselves from the writer's remarks (see the Bloomberg piece - Spiegel Online has one too, but the intricacies of translation mean it presents at least one of Sarrazin's theses as fact). Today's papers are full of debates on whether what he says is actually racist or not. I haven't read the book and I don't intend to do so, but I think at least in Britain, there would be no problem labelling his ideas racist.

Now until today I'd been ignoring Sarrazin on my blog, unwilling to grant him even the very limited extra publicity it would give him. But now I'm delighted to report that someone's standing up to him!

Yesterday, Berlin's House of World Cultures issued a statement on an event planned there as part of the Berlin International Literature Festival. They write (my translation):

Thilo Sarrazin's polemical theses are completely contrary to the House's basic stand. Unfortunately, such excluding positions are often voiced in society. For this reason, we consider critical debate necessary, particularly on our own premises. The festival director Ulrich Schreiber informed us yesterday that the publishers and Thilo Sarrazin reject a critical dialogue partner on the podium.

So, they say, they're not going to host the event unless he changes his mind. Which is about the best thing I've heard all week.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Franzen's Freiheit and the Multiple Translator Phenomenon

The whole world's in Franzen Freedom frenzy, and Germany's no exception. And of course somebody has to do the job of translating the book in record time - because while the author took nine years to produce the book, the German version has to be finished yesterday.

I've written about the multiple translator phenomenon before, specifically the six-man team who had to translate Dan Brown in ten days. Which may or may not have been a success, I don't know. But now there are a couple of rather more literary titles being translated by team effort.

I have a sneaking suspicion this is not an entirely new phenomenon. I know of one prominent North American novel that was translated by two different people to get it onto the market quickly back in 2003, and the name of the translator at the front of the book is a pseudonym. But now publishers seem to be more open about doing it.

The prime example at the moment is Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals/Tiere essen. The book was translated by Isabel Bogdan, Ingo Herzke and Brigitte Jakobeit, and my friend Isabel accompanied the process occasionally on her jolly good blog. Which takes us back to the subject of translators building buzz for their books.

The German publishers Kiepenheuer & Witsch have garnered huge amounts of publicity elsewhere too and are setting up a new online readers' community for the book along the lines of their successful, groundbreaking, etc. etc. DFW site unendlicher spass. I look forward to seeing the site and whether the translators will be as involved this time as DFW's translator Ulrich Blumenbach. Certainly, it'd be interesting to find out how that collaboration worked.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen's previous translator Bettina Abarbanell has been working with Eike Schönfeld on changing Freedom into Freiheit. It's due for release on 17 September, just over two weeks after the official US publication date. As in the case of Foer's book, the German publishers Rowohlt have chosen excellent translators for the job - but one wonders whether an 800-page novel can be translated excellently by two different people. Won't we be able to see the gaps? Schönfeld gave a couple of clues about the process in an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt last month, if you read between the lines:

Not every author is suitable for every translator, says Schönfeld, and sometimes you work under exceptional conditions, somehow. For instance when a writer like Franzen speaks quite good German himself. Or when you have to translate a book faster than you'd actually want to.

Obviously, translators are always under time pressure, but as it becomes easier to get hold of the original versions, publishers are in an even greater rush to reap their investments on the home market. If I were a bestselling American author though, I'd want to know that my book was getting the best possible treatment in the translation process. And I'm not sure that includes being chopped into sections and then stuck back together again, no matter how talented the translators and editors working on it may be.

Monday 23 August 2010

Vote for the Oddest German Book Title

Blatantly and openly modelled on the British Diagram Prize, the funkily titled German equivalent Kuriosester Buchtitel 2010 is now open for your vote. There's a longlist of twenty odd titles, presented in random order when you click on it. The public whittles that down to a six-strong shortlist, and then three judges choose the winner. Incidentally, I met one of the judges at a party where I was obscenely drunk. Just so you know.

Cleverly, they released the longlist on the same day as the German Book Prize longlist, but seeing as I've been on an emotional bender since finishing the first draft of my Helene Hegemann translation, I only just noticed it. Only one book is on both lists, Jan Faktor's Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder Im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag. Which translates as something like "Gregor's Concern for the Past or In the Kingdom of the Holy Scrotum Dingdong of Prague".

The winner will be announced on 6 October at the Frankfurt Book Fair. They seem to get a nice framed certificate and a kiss on the cheek.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

German Book Prize 2010: The Longlist

The list of 20 titles nominated for this year's German Book Prize is now out, catching me rather on the hop. Here they are:

Alina Bronsky, Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, August 2010)

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, March 2010)

Nino Haratischwili, Juja (Verbrecher Verlag, March 2010)

Thomas Hettche, Die Liebe der Väter (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, August 2010)

Michael Kleeberg, Das amerikanische Hospital (DVA, August 2010)

Michael Köhlmeier, Madalyn (Carl Hanser Verlag, August 2010)

Thomas Lehr, September. Fata Morgana (Carl Hanser Verlag, August 2010)

Mariana Leky, Die Herrenausstatterin (DuMont Buchverlag, February 2010)

Nicol Ljubić, Meeresstille (Hoffmann und Campe, February 2010)

Kristof Magnusson, Das war ich nicht (Verlag Antje Kunstmann, January 2010)

Andreas Maier, Das Zimmer (Suhrkamp Verlag, September 2010)

Olga Martynova, Sogar Papageien überleben uns (Droschl Literaturverlag, January 2010)

Martin Mosebach, Was davor geschah (Carl Hanser Verlag, August 2010)

Melinda Nadj Abonji, Tauben fliegen auf (Jung und Jung Verlag, August 2010)

Doron Rabinovici, Andernorts (Suhrkamp Verlag, August 2010)

Hans Joachim Schädlich, Kokoschkins Reise (Rowohlt Verlag, March 2010)

Andreas Schäfer, Wir vier (DuMont Buchverlag, February 2010)

Peter Wawerzinek, Rabenliebe (Galiani Berlin, August 2010)

Judith Zander, Dinge, die wir heute sagten (Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, September 2010)

Joachim Zelter, Der Ministerpräsident (Klöpfer & Meyer Verlag, August 2010)

A few surprises there, and a few publishers will be cracking open the champagne, either for making it onto the list at all as indies or for multiple nominations. You can download samples from all the books at libreka and selected bookshops should have the lovely booklet of extracts from next week. Goethe-Institut branches in Athens, Stockholm, Budapest, Dublin and Thessaloniki will be hosting literary blind date events with the finalists.

And yes, I shall take it upon myself to plough through all the extracts and provide a lowdown on the titles before the shortlist comes out on 8 September. Wish me luck!

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Cheap, Shitey, Dry and Academic: European Writing

This is so funny I can't help but recycle it (via the Literary Saloon). Christos Tsiolkas is an Australian writer currently on a residency in Edinburgh and on the longlist for the Booker Prize. His latest novel The Slap is apparently controversial, and he's obviously not one to shy away from an argument. Because look at what he said at the Edinburgh international book festival:

A friend of mine gave me a book of the best European short stories of 2009. I was instantly struck by how dry and academic they were, and not in the best way, in a cheap, shitey way (...) They didn't talk about the real. I want something more rigorous, more challenging than I am finding at the moment.

Don't you just love it? In other words, Tsiolkas read this one book, Dalkey Archive Press's Best European Fiction 2010, and didn't like it, and then the press shouted that he'd dismissed all European writing. I'm not going to bother listing the many German-language writers who do "talk about the real", whatever that may mean. Rest assured, however, that they're not all writing about winged lions and what would have happened if Switzerland hadn't been neutral.

Another thing I can't confirm is the extreme concern with class that Tsiolkas attributed to Europe as a whole:

I feel Europeans are so much more class bound … it feels so much heavier here in Europe, not just in Scotland but in Greece, Italy. That must have an effect on your literature.

Because for whatever historical reason, deriving perhaps from its history of dictatorships, Germany is oddly neglectful of class. It's almost a dirty word here, even though I see class distinctions everywhere through my very British social spectacles. But as soon as you mention it you're branded a backward-looking do-gooder.

I'm not sure Tsiolkas actually made these sweeping statements about all of Europe and its literature. But he's certainly looking rather foolish right now.

Monday 16 August 2010

Misleading Headline of the Month

Captain Bluebear - I'm a porno freak! the billboard shrieked at me as I fetched our morning rolls from the baker's shop on Sunday.

You mean you don't know Captain Bluebear? Walter Moers' classic blue sea-bear is a teller of tall tales, available in English translation by John Brownjohn. But most of his stories involve pirates and islands and mermaids and the like, not necessarily pornography as far as I'm aware.

It was all a ruse though, sorry. West Berlin's favourite tabloid, BZ, ran an interview with the actor Wolfgang Völz to celebrate his upcoming 80th birthday. Völz is the voice of Captain Bluebear in the long-running puppet/cartoon version, always a joy on a lazy weekend morning. And he shared his life's wisdoms, including this little bon-mot:

I'm a big porno freak, for example. I like reading well-written porn books. The whole series… that red and green series… what's it called again... Oh, it's my age… I'm starting to forget things. Well anyway, there's some really good stuff, really great books. You don't have to read that stuff by that girl, what's her name, who's always fiddling with her bum and doesn't shave.

The latter being, of course, a reference to Charlotte Roche's Wetlands (and her armpits). I'm sure one of my readers will fill us in on that red and green series - I find it hard to imagine it might be Männerschwarm Verlag's "rote Reihe" of gay erotic literature. Then there's the Anais series, but they look more flesh-coloured than red or green. Not my specialist subject, I'm afraid.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Books Everybody's Talking About (That I Won't Be Reviewing)

Four books are splashed all over the German reviews sections right now, none of which I will be reviewing because I am a grumpy old woman. Here's what they are and why I don't like them:

Norbert Gstrein: Die ganze Wahrheit
A thinly veiled massive bitching session about Germany's most prominent publishing widow, Ulla Berkéwicz-Unseld. Surely no one expects anyone outside the German publishing world to give a shit?

Daniel Kehlmann: Lob
While the critics are having fun pouring scorn over young whippersnapper Kehlmann, I'm wondering why he hardly writes about any writers but dead ones in his essays in praise of literature.

Thomas Hettche: Die Liebe der Väter
The press is having a field day. Hettche's written a short novel about an unmarried father and his difficult relationship to his estranged daughter - just when the German courts have ruled on custody rights for unmarried fathers. I suspect it's excellent - I just don't want to go there.

Franka Potente: Zehn
The actress has written a book of short stories set in Japan. It would be bad for my karma to explain why the reviews are mostly outside of the literature section.

Friday 13 August 2010

Thinking Outside the Translation Box

For a while now, Chad Post of Open Letter Books/Three Percent has been saying something I've been thinking. One of the reasons publishers tend to cite for not publishing many translations is the cost of translation. Only the thing is, it's not hugely difficult to get grants to cover that. It's no secret that all sorts of European cultural organisations will actually pay British and American publishers to translate books from their countries - from the Goethe Institut to the Icelandic Literature Fund. Which kind of cancels out that whole "too expensive" argument to some extent. But I don't like to be the person to say that, because what do I know about publishing?

Anyway, now Chad - who does know about publishing translations, because that's what he does - has put down his thoughts on the matter for the trade newsletter Publishing Perspectives. In a two-part feature, no less. You can read part one here and part two here. In essence, he says the focus should be less on the cost factor than on building an audience for translations and international fiction. In two ways: what he calls the "beach read" – heck, why not just go ahead and publish entertaining page-turners in translation, which might well encourage people to read more international fiction – and by cultivating the "non-beach reading audience" – those readers who are into more challenging stuff and love a bit of foreign writing every now and then.

I don't have much to add, to be honest. Except OMG, just read it right now and do exactly what he says, people! I am available for translations from the German, beach read or non-beach read.

Thursday 12 August 2010

Corine International Book Awards

The Corine International Book Awards were (take a deep breath here) "created in order to promote the cultural and economic relevance of the medium book at one of the world’s foremost publishing places which is Munich and to further promote reading and to explore new fields to readers."

They go to both German and international writers, a nice touch that pretty much reflects how the German book market works. And despite them being awarded by the wealthy state of Bavaria, no actual money goes to the winners. But they do have the advantage of being announced right in the middle of the summer holiday season, when - as you may have noticed - nothing else is going on whatsoever.

So marvel, dear readers, at the eight winners in various categories. The most interesting for German book lovers being Hans Joachim Schädlich for his slice of historical literary fiction Kokoshkin's Journey. Looks like it'd be a perfect candidate for translation: Nazis, Russians - and only 192 pages.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

On Translating Hegemann: III

So after the cries of horror on Friday, I have withdrawn into myself and consulted with my editor, and we're sticking with the replacement celebrities. Not in every case (Ann Summers is out, thanks to your mystified feedback), and subject to approval from the author, but still. English-language readers are not used to glossaries and Axolotl Roadkill is not the book to introduce them with. Where German readers of international fiction are apparently happy to be confronted with Betty Drapers and Baal Shem Tovs, British readers are already exploring new territory by reading a translated book. And I want them to get the jokes, not reach for the encyclopedia every few pages.

But rest assured, there are plenty of culturally specific references left in the translation. There are obscure German documentary filmmakers, three-minute vacations in the Teutoburg Forest while leaning out of the window, wealthy and down-at-heel corners of Berlin. There's Nutella and Berghain and Franz Beckenbauer. And it's crucially important that the book is set in today's Berlin, so I'm taking care not to wipe out anything that's not absolutely incomprehensible.

As an aside, a few people expressed wonderment over the fact that the target audience is British. The translation rights have been sold to a British publisher, Constable & Robinson. Usually, English-language rights are sold separately for Britain (sometimes including the Commonwealth) and the USA. Publishers with international distribution possibilities will sometimes buy rights for the whole of the English-speaking world, but that's not the case here. What often happens is that a British publisher and an American publisher will buy rights to the same book and commission a single translation, effectively halving their costs. Then that translation will be reworked for the respective other market. The changes can be fairly drastic, going beyond spelling and punctuation to those bizarre words Americans use for their clothing; you know, pants and vests and the like.

So if and when an American publishing house realises the error of its ways and decides to buy the US rights to Axolotl Roadkill, they'll be editing my text all over again anyway. Or maybe it'll be decades on and they'll commission a brand new translation of this now classic work, rather than using my ham-fisted attempt at rendering Helene Hegemann in the English of 2010.

Friday 6 August 2010

On Translating Hegemann: II

Four literary translators in a beer garden. And what do they talk about? Well, the significance of the year 1866 in German history, why on earth anyone would want to drink Berliner Weisse, children and grandchildren, books - and translation issues.

And quite a controversial discussion ensued. There's one issue in my translation of Helene Hegemann's Axolotl Roadkill that's causing me a few headaches. Fairly often, the narrator or other characters will namedrop German celebrities. And the choice I face then is to leave them "in the original" or to replace them with some other, more international celebrity. So far, I've come up against Beate Uhse, Alice Schwarzer, Uschi Obermaier and Rudi Carell. And possibly others who I can't think of right now. Hegemann uses them as a kind of shorthand - all her German readers will understand what narrator Mifti means when she describes her sister as a blend of Beate Uhse, Alice Schwarzer and Mother Theresa. But will anybody else?

On the other hand, the novel is very much tied in to its Berlin setting. The characters are Germans and their cultural framework is German - although of course, this being 2010, there are huge overlaps, with other famous people cropping up including Madonna, Brian Wilson and Bryan Ferry - just to list a few off the top of my head. So would it not seem odd if the celebrities scattered in didn't include any Germans, for local colour if you like?

Things get really tough when you go deeper into the moral and philosophical side of translation. With whom do my loyalties lie - the writer or the reader, the original or the translation? Is it disrespectful to Hegemann to replace her celebrities with people British readers would be more familiar with - or am I doing the readers of the translation a disservice if I don't help them to get the joke? Because in the case of Rudi Carrell, for example, it's hugely funny that someone would get a tattoo of a deceased Dutch entertainer who once came second-to-last in the Eurovision Song Contest.

In a certain kind of book, translators can work around this issue. Translator's notes, footnotes, building in three-word explanations - there are various options. But when characters are talking crap on Class-A drugs, the translator really can't slip in a quick bit of background detail on Uschi Obermaier. Or at least this translator's not going to. And there's always that tricky question of who's going to read the book in English - what level of knowledge about German society can I assume in the target audience? Who is the target audience? Am I being patronising or dumbing down the text?

I'm fairly convinced I really do have to come up with replacements. So far, so good - but who are the equivalents? Here's what I've come up with to date (bear in mind the translation is for the British market, and it's not finished yet):

Beate Uhse: Ann Summers
Alice Schwarzer: Germaine Greer
Uschi Obermaier: Bianca Jagger
Rudi Carrell: OMG, I have no idea. Terry Wogan? Bruce Forsyth? Dudley Moore? Actually, none of these will work very well - because why would a German taxi-driver get a tattoo of a British television personality? Oh, drat.

Any suggestions gratefully received, while I continue to lie awake at night wrestling with my translatorly conscience over the issue of intervention.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Voters Choose Top Crime Cover

They call it Bloody Cover. And you get what it says on the tin - the best German crime fiction book cover of the year.

Punters could choose from a shortlist of twelve covers, voting online or at selected libraries around the country. The winner is Westend Blues, a regional detective story set in Frankfurt. The Germans do love their regional crime.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Critics and Translators - A Match Made in Heaven?

Seeing as about half the books published in German are actually translations, critics over here often find themselves reviewing translated titles. It's not always easy for them to judge the translation quality, especially if they don't speak the original language. Translators, on the other hand, often feel neglected by critics, rarely or barely mentioned or picked upon for particular word choices rather than getting feedback on the general feel of their finished product.

Now translators - and I write this in the knowledge that I'm no exception - can tend to be a tad self-pitying. You know, we're largely invisible, we always get the blame if something sounds wrong, nobody comes to our parties, we might as well just curl up and die because no one would even notice... Yeah, we do a lot of eating worms, probably because we were all the odd ones out at school and so chose a solitary profession where we can hide behind books for the rest of our lives. Whatever.

In the past, that bitterness came out all unfiltered in the form of complaining letters to the editor and even a negative prize for critics who fail to mention the translator. But a month or so ago, the German Translators' Fund (DÜF) organised a symposium, bringing translators and critics together in Munich to work on ways around the problem. And being critics and having to earn a crust, a couple of those in attendance wrote about it. Andreas Breitenstein gives an intelligent overview in the NZZ, while Lynn Scheurer wrote about it in the Süddeutsche Zeitung - although they didn't put it online, just to rub salt in the wound.

Yes, they both wrote, it's tough for us critics, but translators don't have it easy either. Both of them liked the idea of using translators' forewords more often to highlight the effort and the ideas that go into a translation, though they realised that publishers probably aren't keen on the extra costs involved. They comment on the idea that it is possible to judge a translation's quality by the finished product alone, which is gaining ground and ought to make life slightly easier for critics. And they acknowledge that the state of play is pretty poor, with reviews often either ignoring the translator altogether or - almost worse in my opinion - finding a single adjective to describe the translation (smooth, fluid, the dreaded congenial) but providing no basis for that judgement, which they say is often the result of embarrassed ignorance - a critic being a generalist rather than a specialist. So the two sides appeared to have come together to some extent.

But then last week Katharina Granzin had a piece in the taz about the symposium. Let's just ignore the fact that it was published more than a month after the event - it's just paranoia, we won't listen to those voices telling us nobody cares enough about us to have run the article earlier. What I do have to say is, it really opened my eyes to what it must have been like in Munich. Because from the beginning, Granzin's tone is defensive. She lists the accusations hurled at the critics by angry translators: naivety, superficiality, poor education, no personality, never even tried translating themselves. She continues:

Incidentally, the critic is much worse off than the translator, organised in the translators' association and with excellent networks, who can at least often count on support from the translators' fund or other sources. The majority of German critics, in contrast, are not sitting in warm editorial offices but go about their precarious calling in cold, lonely garrets. These individuals, most of them with an excellent education and practicing their barely paid profession out of an idealism that is difficult to explain, are perfectly capable of recognising the translator's contribution and, where appropriate, willing to honour it in writing. This cannot and should not, however, be a compulsory exercise.

Leaving aside the fact that the DÜF and other sources support only a tiny percentage of translations and the fact that not one single translator has access to a "warm editorial office", the piece as a whole conjures up a picture of a critic majorly pissed off by the whole occasion. Here's what she recommends:

Perhaps translators ought to adopt the cleaning lady hypothesis: "Everything's fine as long as nobody complains." Should their call for more translation criticism really be about making translations better, they can also create specialised structures within their own networks.

I'm trying hard not to scream. Translators in Germany have created their own structures to improve the quality of translations, with workshops and seminars organised on a regular basis, mentoring programmes, residencies, a guest professorship, and many other fantastic things going on. The DÜF itself is the child of a small group of dedicated translators who spent a great deal of time applying for state funding, and now dedicate a great deal of time to supporting other translators. The professional association VDÜ also offers workshops, there are mailing lists and regular get-togethers where translators help each other with their texts. What they're doing now is approaching critics and offering them help to overcome the hurdle of commenting on translations.

And much as I admire the work of cleaning ladies, they too would probably appreciate a word of praise every now and then. I don't know though, I can't afford one for my cold, lonely garret.

Granzin defends her fellow critics to the hilt. Under the prevailing economic conditions, she points out, nobody's going to read the original, even if they're capable of doing so. And the translation challenges aren't always relevant, she says. Translation quality, she maintains, doesn't actually make or break a book.

I personally have two minimum demands of critics:

Firstly, if you mention the book's language, you have to mention the translator in the review itself. It goes without saying that the translator has to be mentioned with the bibliographical details.
And secondly, if you praise the translation, you have to tell us what you thought was good about it. Equally, you can tactfully ignore an uninspired translation if you like or you can go ahead and rip it to shreds - as long as you have some evidence, just as I'd expect for any other aspect of a review.

I'd be interested to hear what readers think - do you want to read about the translation itself in a book review or does it just leave you cold?