Thursday 27 January 2011

Four German Titles on Best Book Fiction Awards Longlist

Yes, they just announced the fiction longlist of 25 titles for the Best Translated Book Award. Along with lots of other no doubt fabulous books translated from eleven other languages, the list features four titles translated from German:

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated by Anthea Bell (Grove)

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)

The 10-title fiction shortlist is out on 24 March, as is the poetry shortlist. Winners will be announced on 29 April at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York.

I've only read the first two books, as the others are by dead people - yes, I know I'm probably missing out. And I'm rooting for Erpenbeck/Bernofsky, as I love the book a tiny bit more than I love the Franck/Bell title (which is still a great read).

To quote liberally from the press release:

“Not only is this a collection of the year’s most important and compelling books in translation, it’s a list of high quality books that deserve readers’ attention,” said fiction judge Monica Carter. “These books represent a global perspective that, due to the dedication and talent of the translators, can open up the world to readers of English. The Best Translated Book Awards serve the world literature community of writers, translators, and readers in a way that no other award can.”

Hear, hear. And I love that the award gives so much kudos to translators.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Pipped to the Love Virtually Post

Gah! You know when you have the most fantastic idea ever in the whole history of humankind? And then someone else does it first!

So, please go now to the blog of British publishing company Quercus, where someone else (Vivienne Nilan to be precise, of Athens Plus newspaper of all things) has done a great interview with Katharina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch.

Who? Why, Katharina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch are a husband and wife who have translated a book together - Daniel Glattauer's Love Virtually. What? Why, it's a super-top-mega-bestseller by an Austrian writer, about a secret email affair. A great quick read, it's actually a bit meatier than you might think and certainly incredibly gripping. I read it last weekend and could not, as they say, put it down - which I did resent slightly, but there you go. As Katharina Bielenberg points out in the interview, people do have secret email affairs, and the book does very well at capturing the combination of excitement and guilt that entails. Plus lots of cliffhangers and a sequel to come.

It's published by MacLehose Press, the people who launched Stieg Larsson on an unsuspecting English-speaking world, thus proving that translations can indeed sell in huge numbers. The brains behind the outfit, Christopher MacLehose, is known for his - let's say - very free approach to translations. Of course I'm highly prejudiced against him, as he's on record somewhere as saying you have to be old to translate well. Hmpf. He's a bit of an old-school editor who's more than happy to chop the bits he doesn't like, causing some controversy over the Larsson books. The credited translator, Reg Keeland, is a pseudonym for Steven Murray – allegedly because he didn't like what was done to his version. Joan Acocella wrote recently in a rather unfriendly piece in the New Yorker:

MacLehose stands by his work. “I did edit the translation, yes,” he wrote to me, “but it isn’t a particularly interesting fact or story and it has earned me enough abuse already from the translator and from the author’s former partner. Perhaps [it is] sufficient to say that seven or eight houses in England turned it down in its original form”—Murray’s English translation—“and seven or eight in America. In its edited form, as many Americans bid for it.”

Reg Keeland/Steven Murray, by the way, happens to have a very cool blog called Stieg Larsson's English Translator.

But to get back to the point, had there not already been a very good interview with the translators of Love Virtually, I would have asked them whether it's more legitimate to interfere with a text during the translation process if it's what we call genre fiction than if it's Kafka. But other than that, it's a great interview.

And I'd like to officially state that I'm very pleased to see more lightweight German books being successful in translation; the perfect example right now being Oliver Pötzsch's The Hangman's Daughter (trans. Lee Chedayne). Let's hope they pave the way for a revolution in reading habits. Like German books with no Nazis in them, for a start...

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Go There

Salonica is a blog and a website with lots and lots of stuff on it, written by former bookseller and international literature fan Monica Carter. Go there when you have time on your hands. She's just added a handy feature, a monthly list of new releases in translation in the States. From-the-German titles are Ferdinand von Schirach's Crime - recommended by Bernhard Schlink and translated by his translator Carol Janeway, if you like that kind of thing - and Thomas Bernhard's Victor Halfwit, trans. Martin Chalmers. Which is that odd creature, a children's book written by Austria's greatest ever cynic.

Carter also happens to be one of the fiction judges for the Best Translated Book Awards, and points out the longlist is coming out very soon now. So that's something to make you get up in the morning.

Friday 21 January 2011

Chamisso Prize to Jean Krier

The Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for "non-German authors writing in the German language" has been awarded to the Luxemburg-born poet Jean Krier. The emerging author prizes go to Olga Martynova and Nicol Ljubic.

I haven't read any of Krier's poetry but you can see what I thought of the other two in my overview of the last German Book Prize longlist. Which was conspicuously full of writers born elsewhere, as I've pointed out in the past. Which again makes me wonder whether we still need the Chamisso Prize, were it not for the good stuff that goes along with it such as events in schools. Which brings me to the subject of who cares where anyone's from anyway. But I'm too tired to rant today.

On Not Eating Animals

600 people at an alleged €17 a pop, and a piece on the late-night news. That's what you get when you invite Jonathan Safran Foer and Karen Duve to read from their books and talk about not eating animals. I went along for free, because my friend Isabel Bogdan translated Mr Safran Foer's book along with two other lovely and talented translators, Brigitte Jakobeit and Ingo Herzke. But I was one of the small minority in the huge audience who hadn't actually read Eating Animals. I read Anständig essen (Eating Decently) instead.

Karen Duve is a top fiction writer with a sharp sense of humour. You can read her novels This Is Not A Love Song and Rain in English, trans. Anthea Bell (although that took a bit of research to work out - the publishers Bloomsbury seem loathe to mention the fact). I loved her last book, Taxi. And now she's written her first piece of non-fiction, a personal account of her ten-month attempt to eat like a decent human being. She starts off going organic, then vegetarian, then vegan, and finally only eats plant products that don't kill the plant itself when you harvest them, i.e. fruit but no potatoes, peas but no carrots, etc.

Which ties in nicely with Safran Foer's book, presumably. Except that the two of them took rather different approaches to what is essentially the big problem with trying to tell other people what they should and should not eat - the preachiness of it all.

As far as I gathered at last night's reading, JSF (I can't pronounce it so I'll just abbreviate it from now on) tried to tell people what's bad about eating animals without actually telling them what to do about it. Certainly he was very coy in person about how better to persuade people to become vegetarians. It was all about setting a good example and being a better person, not getting on anyone's nerves, doing the right thing, starting with yourself, loving your grandparents, and so forth. Which in itself has a saccharine aftertaste - to me personally - that says, "Hey, you guys just go ahead and destroy the environment and torture poor creatures, I'll be over here with my nut loaf and my clear conscience. Oh, and did I mention my son wrote a letter to David Attenborough?"

Karen Duve, on the other hand, took the more typically German approach - just to labour another cliché. She started with herself, but she's not afraid to get out that moral club and beat you over the head with it until you fall to the ground whimpering and begging for tofu. What she did to take the edge off her preaching was to use her sense of humour.

So the book opens with a device, an external conscience by the name of - wait for it - Jiminy Cricket, Duve's housemate who is a paragon of virtue. Isabel and I aren't sure the woman really exists, but she certainly makes for entertaining reading. Duve does her best to convince Jiminy/Kerstin of what she's doing at each stage, going from suggesting organic farming might be an absolute gift to animals, who get a roof over their head and three square meals a day and a nice stroll around the meadow, to not letting her mow the lawn because it hurts the blades of grass. And she thoroughly enjoys out-consciencing her conscience by eating as ethically as she can.

Or there's a fantastic scene in which Duve visits her family and preaches at them about veganism and factory farming, while her brothers and nephews and so on get bored and walk away and her mother suggests she have a nice drink of milk - it's OK, it's skimmed. She's perfectly aware she's become a food bore, but she milks it (excuse me, I couldn't resist) for all the gags it's worth. She also gently teases other ethical eaters, from the lady in the wholefood shop who lets her water expand in a jug before she drinks it to the rivalling Alpha males in the raw food movement.

In between, of course, there are shocking facts you're probably already half aware of about farming and slaughtering methods, climate change reports, a spot of live animal liberation, interesting stuff about Jainism, and a lot of ethical qualms and indecent cravings. Towards the end, when Duve was living on a diet of peas cooked in coconut milk, the theories became rather addled to my mind. I was reminded of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, forced to eat only peas for a medical experiment, and I clearly recalled an undergraduate seminar in which someone (it may have been me) pointed out with perfect 20-year-old logic that it was no wonder he killed his girlfriend if his diet was so restricted.

Karen Duve didn't kill anything but a few insects, but she does get rather vague about some kind of "creation" that meant all living beings to be equal, and I couldn't help laughing at the accidental lie-detector tests on office plants. All in all, though, the book was rescued by her admissions at the end - that it's not easy eating ethically but she's going to try her best to be as vegan as possible.

All this comes at a time when vegetarianism, we're told, is in fashion. Judging by snippets I picked up at the reading, a lot of people came because of the subject rather than the writers. There were activists in animal costumes outside, calling attention to a demonstration tomorrow. And the guy selling sandwiches in the corridor was keeping rather quiet about his salami baguettes. Add to that the latest farming scandal over contaminated eggs, and we may be witnessing a turning point. Still, it's a hell of a lot easier to be vegetarian in Britain than it is here, and has been for about twenty years.

Things may be looking up, though. The whole publishers and translators kit and caboodle went to a vegan restaurant after JSF had finished signing 3 million autographs. I'm told it was excellent, although I personally have made a vow not to do so much ligging and therefore didn't even attempt to invite myself along, even though it was very conveniently situated on my way home.

I still eat meat, so far. Isabel's given it up, more or less.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Festival Neue Literatur

Look! New Yorkers of any and all persuasions have a treat in store - the Festival Neue Literatur, bringing "six of the best up-and-coming German-language authors to the city, where they join well-known American writers in a series of conversations and readings." February 11-13. Enjoy.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

German Crime Fiction Prize to Bernhard Jaumann

They announced yesterday that this year's Deutscher Krimi-Preis has gone to Namibia-based Bernhard Jaumann for his novel Die Stunde des Schakals (The Hour of the Jackal).

Namibia is a former German colony, where the colonists committed genocide against the local Herero and Nama people in 1904-1907.

The book is set in modern-day Namibia though, and features a "loveable" female detective in a thriller-type setting revisiting the last years of Apartheid. Sounds interesting, huh?

The prize is pretty cool too - there's no award ceremony and the winner gets not one cent.

Friday 14 January 2011

Medal for German Grammarian

Now we all know that grammarians deserve praise and recognition, but it's not often they get a medal, is it? Or maybe it is, maybe there's some kind of special grammarian's league that awards its own honours in gold and silver once every three years. What do I know?

Anyway, German being a language with very prescriptive grammar and very strict spelling rules, passed by parliament and all that, it makes sense for a German grammarian to get a medal from the president. And Christian Stang has done just that. Or had just that done to him. Or will have just that done to him in the near future, as the trade press reports. Herr Stang is actually younger than me and works for the German post office. Which means he is that very cool thing, a grammarian in his free time. He published his first book (on punctuation) at the age of 19 and it seems he's never looked back.

I'm trying not to be overly envious. I'm consoling myself with the fact that once you've been awarded a medal by the president for your services to German grammar, spelling and punctuation at the age of 35, it's all downhill from there on. Or from then on.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Another Reason to be Cheerful

Not only is rain good for the trees, but German books are getting translated! Someone at the fantabulous German Book Office New York has been counting translated books reviewed in the US publication Publisher's Weekly, they tell us. And guess what - you know how people always moan and groan about only three percent of books published in the States being translations? Well, they're wrong! It was actually 3.2% in 2010.

Here's my favourite part of the press release:

German remained high on the list of most translated languages with 30 translations in 2010 (compared to 19 in 2009), which can be divided in fiction (21 titles), nonfiction (7 titles) and Children’s Books (2 titles) -- second only to French. It can be said that German translations fare remarkably well in the fiction and non-fiction market with the numbers of sales in both categories nearly doubling compared to 2009 (Fiction: 13, Non-Fiction: 4), while the number of children’s books remained the same.

Now this is a wee bit odd, considering Chad W. Post counted 35 German fiction/poetry titles in 2010 (see below). It probably stems from the fact that the GBO analysed books reviewed in PW rather than combing through catalogues like Chad. On top of that, Chad doesn't include re-releases or re-translations in his statistics, which do add up when it comes to all those dead white Germans. The GBO kindly points out too that the Americans have an ongoing interest in WWII and the Holocaust, which is good for non-fiction titles (as long as they're not about anything else).

So in fact, we can safely assume there are almost literally kajillions of German books getting translated in the States. And just you wait and see what 2011 brings! I personally have ensured we match up to last year's two whole children's books translated from German, so I can imagine there might be a bit of an increase on that front...

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Reasons to be Cheerful

January is really the crappiest month, apart from February perhaps (TS Eliot was wrong about April though, because my birthday's in April). January is dark and gloomy and you're still feeling all fat and loathsome from the holidays, nobody ever wants to leave the house so even if there is some occasion you feel like partaking of (which there probably isn't), you're gonna have to go all on your own. Probably the event you go to will be cancelled because everyone else in the whole world decided to have a night in. Just for a change.

And then there's the state of the world. For some reason it seems so much more desolate in January. Apart from the obvious, which I won't list here, there is of course translation decimation. Chad W. Post (the W. stands for Willcontinueforeverandeverto and he has the little known second surname of Goodstuffaboutinternationalwriting-On-Threepercent) has discovered that despite all the hype, 2010 was a crappy year for translations. In terms of numbers published in the USA. Probably because publishers are cowards, especially when there's one of those financial crisis things going on. Boo!

But let's move into positive thinking mode here. I saw a great cartoon the other day of a Think Positive! course. On the whiteboard it says: Life may be crap, but it doesn't last forever. And I have indeed spotted a tiny sliver of silver lining in Chad's depressing statistics, albeit only if you favour German-language literature over all other writing - heaven forbid. Because first-time translations of fiction and poetry from German in the USA went up - actually up! - last year, from 31 to 35 books. Hooray!

Also on the plus side, I am all booked up for this year with four fantastic books by extremely talented and fabulous German and Swiss writers. And it's not actually raining where I am right now. And I have added a little display of my "followers" on the left, just to make me feel like Jesus. Only I have more than twelve. And one of them appears to be a giraffe.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Pardon My Schadenfreude

With the news that Germany's biggest-selling non-fiction title in 2010 was Thilo Sarrazin's bigoted diatribe against Muslim immigrants, people obviously started wondering whether any other nations would like to read it. And the Financial Times Deutschland ran a piece that I've only just come across, Does Germany Abolish Itself? In it, we get the gratifying information that the German publishers DVA are a bit sheepish about it all. Top boss Thomas Rathnow apparently told Der Spiegel he's not proud of the book's success. And foreign rights head Gesche Wendenbourg mentions enquiries from dodgy organisations and individuals that "hadn't read the book but wanted to put translated extracts on the websites." They said no.

My favourite part of the item: there's been no interest in buying translation rights from the English-speaking world. After all, we already have The Bell Curve. Lucky us.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Translations Conquer the Universe

Quick! Look at the top bestsellers on Amazon for Kindle now! Four of the top ten are translations! Well, OK, three of them are Stieg Larsson novels, and if you ever read other blogs concerned with translations you'll know there's a kind of tired lack of enthusiasm about his books in what we like to call "the community". I've never read any of them, sorry, so can't comment in any way.

But the other one is a German book! Oliver Pötzsch's "brilliantly detailed, fast-paced historical thriller, The Hangman’s Daughter" - translated by Lee Chedayne for AmazonCrossing. Very cleverly, Amazon has bought in a book by a guy with a totally unpronounceable name. Even I find it difficult, and I'm very good at German, if I do say so myself. And whereas that might be a hurdle in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore - "Oliver Po-Poe-Poet-Potsee-The Hangman's Daughter, you know?" - it doesn't matter at all online! No doubt the book has other qualities otherwise people wouldn't buy it in the first place, but I still think this is a stroke of utter genius.

I don't have a Kindle though, despite translating two titles for AmazonCrossing (that was the full disclosure, by the way). Sadly, although the team are lovely people and incredibly clever, they don't send out digital reading devices as corporate Christmas gifts.

Monday 3 January 2011

Things I Am Looking Forward To in 2011

One of my favourite German rituals is the New Year's Eve tradition of "lead-pouring". You take little plugs of lead (actually aluminium these days), melt them down over a candle, and then pour them into cold water to see what shape they make and predict your fate for the coming year. Of course it's all in the interpretation, but this year I got a saxophone. Make of that what you will. I also had a fortune cookie that told me to "be patient and optimistic" - and chose not to apply that to my love life.

There a few German books I'm really looking forward to in 2011, in two different areas.

Firstly, in the patient and optimistic sector, two debuts of which I have no idea when they'll be coming out: novels by Jan Brandt and Sebastian Polmans. Brandt is a geezer about town I vaguely know, alway impeccably dressed and surrounded by hordes of women, and I'm curious to find out whether his writing's any good. So far I've heard one short story and was impressed - but found it slightly too smooth. The book's allegedly being published by Dumont. And Polmans was my favourite at the Open Mike competition a while back. He seems to write with a spirit of adventure and excitement, so again I'm very curious as to what his debut with Suhrkamp will bring us.

Secondly, I predict a major anti-chauvinist backlash against the likes of Thilo Sarrazin, in fiction and non-fiction. The most obvious title in this category is the essay volume Manifest der Vielen, edited by Hilal Sezgin and featuring pieces by all sorts of sensible writers. The publishers promise writing about their lives in Germany, home and identity, being a Muslim or a non-Muslim, focusing on critical analysis and personal stories rather than terms like migrants, Muslims, Germans, etc. Out in February from Blumenbar.

And after the exhilarating presence of "migrant writers" from all sorts of places all over last year's shortlists and awards (with Melinda Nadj Abonji taking almost every prize going for her beautiful but plot-disadvantaged novel about Hungarian-Serbian immigrants to Switzerland), this year promises more. Zsuzsa Bánk, feted back in 2002 for her debut Der Schwimmer, returns with a big fat novel about Hungarians and Germans growing up together, Die hellen Tage. Out in February from Fischer. And the same month sees the long-awaited follow-up to My Official Favourite German Book Ever, Selim Özdogan's Die Tochter des Schmieds. Called Heimstraße 52 (Aufbau), it follows the protagonist Gül and her family from Turkey to Germany, where Özdogan shows typical dramas, childhoods and working lives in Germany's industrial boomtime. Think Small Island applied to Germany. I love it already, and I think 2011 will be the year when writers whose parents came from abroad but who grew up in Germany, Austria and Switzerland themselves really come into their own. The postmigrant generation in your face, dude.

On the translation front, I'm looking forward to all sorts of goodies. First and foremost Helene Hegemann's Axolotl Roadkill in English, translated by - er, me. Out in April from Constable & Robinson. Then my translation of My Second Favourite German Book Ever, Inka Parei's The Shadowboxing Woman, published I'm not quite sure when by Seagull Books. Then I have two gorgeous young adult/children's titles by the delightfully talented Rusalka Reh coming out with AmazonCrossing in May and August.

Translations on the "to be reviewed" pile include Thomas Pletzinger's celebrated novel Funeral for a Dog, translated no doubt extremely well by Ross Benjamin, and Daniel Glattauer's Love Virtually, an internet romance romp rendered into English by husband-and-wife team Katharina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch. Both spring releases, I believe. I'm looking forward to two short books brought to us by Peirene Press - Matthias Politycki's Next World Novella (trans. Anthea Bell) and Austrian Alois Hotschnig's Maybe This Time, translated by my buddy Tess Lewis. Oh, and I don't know if it's actually coming out this year or not, but Open Letter are doing Benjamin Stein's jewel The Canvas.

Plus, 2011 sees the first books from the wonderful people at And Other Stories, who have confirmed two titles so far from Iosi Havilio (Argentina) and Juan Pablo Villalobos (Mexico). And who knows, maybe they'll discover a German writer to share with the English-speaking world as well. You certainly need to check them out if you haven't already.

So, join me in exercising patience and optimism, and let us all play our saxophones for fantastic German books in 2011.