Wednesday 21 December 2011

EU Prize Success Story

So having mouthed off about the unsexiness of those European Union book awards, I got a message from a Macedonian translator, my friend Elizabeta Lindner. She pointed out that there has been one massive success story to come out of the 2010 awards. The Macedonian writer Goce Smilevski got one of the twelve sub-prizes for emerging writers, and his winning novel has now sold into at least twenty languages. Twenty! It does indeed look like fascinating stuff: Sigmund Freud's Sister imagines the titular heroine making friends with Franz Kafka's sister in a concentration camp, and will be published in English by Penguin US/UK.

Also, I have to admit that the author interviews on the award website from last year are a nice personal touch. So, yes, they're still obscure and have a whiff of bureaucracy about them, but for what we call "smaller" languages these awards may have more significance, as Elizabeta pointed out. Then again, an extract from the novel was also featured in Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction 2010 anthology and his previous book, Conversation with Spinoza, made it into English too. So who knows what weighed the scales in his favour.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Heinrich Böll: Irish Journal

Some time ago, I wrote that I’d rather eat my hat than read this book, or some such nonsense. As a British person, I have always been slightly envious of the Irish for occupying the number-one spot in all Germans’ mental charts of their favourite foreigners. And this particular book seemed to be the reason for – or at the least the main symptom of – that affection. Add to that a pointless truculence towards reading any author on my university syllabus, and it seemed unlikely that I would ever dip into Böll’s Irish Journal.

But Melville House has been re-releasing much of Böll’s work in English translation, and it seemed to make sense for me to review something I hadn’t previously read. So why not dive in at the deep end and go for a book I felt had been niggling at me for about twenty years?

In fact it was a revealing experience. Firstly because it reminded me that Böll was simply an excellent craftsman. He could be an angry polemicist making a point through fiction, something he did very well – and that is what we read as undergraduates. But what was obscured at the time, very possibly by my undergraduate-level German skills, was that he also wrote beautifully. Leila Vennewitz’s translation is genuinely pretty, bringing out all the sublime sentimentality of Böll’s language. One of many stand-out examples:

…this clear, cold light does not penetrate the sea: it merely clings to its surface, as water clings to glass, gives the beach a soft rust color, lies on the bog like mildew…

 And the other reason I found it revealing was that it does seem to have had a formative influence on several generations of Germans. I even found things in the book that people have been telling me for years:

…here on this island, then, live the only people in Europe that never set out to conquer, although they were conquered several times, by Danes, Normans, Englishmen – all they sent out was priests, monks, missionaries who, by way of this strange detour via Ireland, brought the spirit of Thebaic asceticism to Europe…

- something that the Germans find particularly fun to rub in English faces while still savouring their own sense of national guilt.

The journal consists of a variety of short pieces on Ireland that Böll wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine. His first visit to Ireland was in 1954, staying on Achill Island off County Mayo, and this is the time and place he describes – a country of extreme poverty, strict Catholicism and much rain. We see the place through the eyes of a 40-year-old paterfamilias, so there is a good deal of celebration of whiskey and cigarettes by the fireside. But he also appreciates the Irish sense of humour and the pretty women, and being a German he marvels at the way things run without the slightest bit of efficiency but still get done.

One aspect I found particularly interesting was the way Böll dwells on Ireland’s mass emigration. By the mid-1950s, the West German economy was in the midst of its miracle. Böll seems fascinated by the poverty he sees in Dublin and the rest of the country, focusing on details such as safety pins and then string used to hold clothes together. But that poverty seems to be an honourable one to him, resulting from overcrowding and a lack of resources. He sees the direct link to the widespread emigration, which he describes in very emotional terms, evoking many tearful farewells and abandoned houses. I was tempted to contrast it to emigration from Germany under the Nazis, although Böll never does so directly.

I would have found the book a fascinating and eminently readable outsider’s portrait, were it not for the epilogue that Heinrich Böll added in 1967. As Hugo Hamilton points out in his beautifully written introduction – in which he neatly balances interesting stuff about himself with interesting stuff about the book itself – he “records the grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society” in the journal itself. Yet he does so entirely uncritically. And it was his epilogue that really opened my eyes to that complacent view, because here Böll comments with horror on the arrival of the birth-control pill in Ireland. While even admitting that it might free the women from having quite so many babies and the country from over-population, he writes, “…this something absolutely paralyzes me: the prospect that fewer children might be born in Ireland fills me with dismay.” How sad that a writer capable of such critical faculty when it came to his own country failed to apply that to Ireland.

So, read the Irish Journal to find out what clichés the Germans still hold dear about Ireland, and to some extent what Ireland was like in the mid-1950s. But do bear in mind that it’s all rather reminiscent of a BBC costume drama featuring craggy character actors as The Priest, The Doctor’s Wife, The Drinker, The Post-Office Girl and The Bus Driver. Delightfully nostalgic stuff, very well done, but perhaps not exactly educational.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Maxim Who? On EU Literary Awards

The European Union has two book awards. And nobody has ever heard of either of them. One - the European Union Prize for Literature is for emerging talents and goes to twelve authors from different countries every year. This year one of them writes in German, Iren Nigg. I have to admit I don't know her work, although she is mentioned in this interview with her fellow Liechtenstein writer Stefan Sprenger. I am slightly embarrassed at knowing absolutely nothing about the principality's literature, despite having once met a nice (but Berlin-based) Liechtenstein writer at a party. My excuse is that nobody else does either. Nigg received €5000 at a ceremony held on 28 November in Brussels.

Then there is the European Book Prize, which I have only just heard of. And only because Julian Barnes was chair of the judges and wrote about it in The Guardian. Apparently there was an awards ceremony in Brussels, just over a week after the first one. This prize goes to two writers, one writing what I'm just going to call non-fiction, in this case the Polish author Anna Bikont. And the other goes to a fiction writer, in this case Maxim Leo. Who is a German writer and journalist who wrote Haltet euer Herz bereit, published in Germany in 2009 and in France last autumn. It seems to have gone down like a lead balloon over here, getting a whole one press review as far as I can tell (although it was a favourable one).

According to Euronews (the only other English-language source I could find):
Maxim Leo said: “I tried to write a book about how I remembered the former German Democratic Republic. Most books and movies about this subject deal with people in the Stasi or in the opposition movement for civil rights. There is nothing between these two subjects. Apparently one has to be a fighter for civil rights or a traitor. I tried to write about the fact that there was also normal life, family life, I wrote about people who were sad, happy, in love or not in love, about the fact that everything was possible. Because I do know myself very well and I know my family, I told a story about my family.” 
So on the one hand, I'm glad this award has raised the profile of what sounds like an interesting book, and that the judges have not opted for the easy, popular choice. On the other hand, despite the boon of €10,000 in prize money and the undoubted boost to the writer's ego, the European Book Prize is hardly going to raise Maxim Leo's profile significantly. It, and indeed its sister prize too, are the Liechtenstein of literary awards - well funded, obscure and strangely unsexy, involving lavish banquets with swing quintets. 

I very much doubt that anything run by the European Union is going to get much love from the UK right now. So kudos to Julian Barnes for raising the subject in the face of a tide of anti-European sabre-rattling. In the same Guardian issue, incidentally, Jonathan Jones touches very briefly on the short shrift given to "foreign writers" in a rising tide of British patriotism, citing - and this made me laugh out loud - Philip Roth. Because those writing in actual foreign languages seem to get such short shrift that Jonathan Jones has never heard of them.

I shall go to bed now and hope I wake up in a better literary world. Perhaps one in which award-winners get translated into English.

Thursday 15 December 2011

German Book Office Buzz Videos

In a terribly, terribly exciting development, the lovely people at the German Book Office NY have made a series of videos celebrating the other lovely people at New Books in German and presenting a selection of, umm, recommended new books in German. They had a glamorous launch party with a screening on Monday, where the world's literati rubbed shoulders over canapés and champagne. And truffles. And Salman Rushdie brought some brownies he'd made, which were very good apparently but brought out Philip Roth's nut allergy because he forgot to mention the secret ingredient (pistachios!). Anyway, by the time the videos were screened I hear all was well again because Jeannette Winterson had her epi-pen with her and administered a quick emergency injection.

So the world was almost as wowed as I was by the amazing videos you can now watch on the GBO's Youtube channel. I'm in one of them too, talking about Simon Urban's Plan D. Please contact my agent if you want to offer me a film contract. Contact the GBO or NBG if you're a publisher and feel inspired to buy the translation rights to any of the books. And many, many thanks to Brittany Hazelwood for doing such an excellent job.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Subscribe Subscribe Subscribe

Ten shopping days to Christmas and you can't be bothered to leave the comfort of your home ever again? Lower back pain from lugging heavy shopping bags? Panic rising as you remember you've forgotten to get your dad anything? I know that feeling. Instead of stuffing cash in an envelope, why not go for classy gifts that don't require you getting rained on?

A book subscription! Translated fiction sent to your loved ones' door at regular intervals - reminding them all through the year of what a wonderful person you are and what sophisticated taste you have. At least three fantastic options are open to you:

An And Other Stories subscription offers four books a year for 35 pounds in Europe or 45 in the rest of the world (including one crazy Swiss title, Zbinden's Progress by Christoph Simon, trans. Donal McLaughlin). Top choice.

A Peirene Press subscription offers six books a year for 45 pounds or three for 24. This one includes another Swiss title, Richard Weihe's illustrated novella Sea of Ink, trans. Jamie Bulloch, which I don't know at all yet.

Or if you're stuck in the States go for an Open Letter Books subscription, which is terribly confusing but I think buys you twelve books for 100 dollars or six for 60. I believe that would include Benjamin Stein's excellent The Canvas, trans. Brian Zumhagen.

As well as making an excellent present for any sentient being - or indeed yourself - a subscription helps support small publishers who are championing translated fiction. And you know you want to do that.

Monday 12 December 2011

Reading Group? Ask the Translator.

The Germans don't tend to be early adopters (see also: e-readers, tasty sandwiches). Whereas a whole slew of books in the UK and the US have made it big via reading-group word-of-mouth and major publishers often include a list of discussion points at the back of likely novels, Germany hasn't quite caught on yet. On the other hand, of course, the Germans are already a nation of readers and may not need as much encouragement.

But still, there is a book-group book out there - Das Lesekreisbuch - authored by Thomas Böhm, a man who wears elbow patches in public. Apparently he even provides tips for the right kind of nibbles to serve. He bigged up the idea in the NZZ earlier this year, mostly with reference to UK/US examples. Most of the reading groups I'm aware of in Berlin do in fact focus on English literature - I used to attend one initiated by the British Council a few years ago and the bookshop Dialogue Berlin runs another excellent one. BUT some of the cleverest German literary types I know also happen to have a reading group on a less formal basis. In fact, I believe I lent one of them a book and never got it back - I assume that's a good sign. In New York, Boston, London and Glasgow, however, you can read books in German and discuss them in English. Or you could even set up your own German reading group if you're that way inclined.

All of which brings me back to the title of this post. I recently came up with a list of questions and discussion points for one of the books I translated (more later, as and when anything comes out of it). And I found it really easy, not just because I'm a chatty kind of person but because having translated the book, I knew it inside out. But at the same time, I had the distance necessary to step back and look for overarching themes, weaknesses, and issues in the book. Which I think can be difficult for some writers to do themselves.

Anyway, my idea is this: if you already have a reading group in Germany or elsewhere and you happen to read the odd translation, why not choose a book done by a local translator and get a bit of added value by inviting the translator along? How cool would that be? I bet they'd be thrilled to bits and have loads of great anecdotes to tell you, as well as understanding the book really well. Plus they're more likely to attend than, let's say, W.G. Sebald or John Steinbeck. Just don't say you prefer to read the original.

Friday 9 December 2011

Fair Play for Literary Translators

CEATL is the European Council of Literary Translators' Associations, and has just published a "hexalogue" of six simple demands. Here they are:

Hexalogue or Code of Good Practice

The Six Commandments of ‘fair-play’ in literary translation, adopted by CEATL’s General Assembly on 14 May, 2011. 
1. Licensing of rights
The licensing of rights for the use of the translation shall be limited in time to a maximum of five years. It shall be subject to the restrictions and duration of the licensed rights of the original work. Each licensed right shall be mentioned in the contract.
2. Fees
The fee for the commissioned work shall be equitable, enabling the translator to make a decent living and to produce a translation of good literary quality.
3. Payment terms
On signature of the contract, the translator shall receive an advance payment of at least one third of the fee. The remainder shall be paid on delivery of the translation at the latest.
4. Obligation to publish
The publisher shall publish the translation within the period stipulated in the contract, and no later than two years after the delivery of the manuscript.
5. Share in profit
The translator shall receive a fair share of the profits from the exploitation of his/her work, in whatsoever form it may take, starting from the first copy.
6. Translator’s name
As author of the translation, the translator shall be named wherever the original author is named.
In my modest experience, we are still some way from achieving point 5 in the UK, point 2 in Germany and point 6 pretty much anywhere in the world. 

Thursday 8 December 2011

The Amazing Love German Books Awards 2011!

 A few of my favourite things for 2011

I don’t much care for best book lists, partly because I don’t ever feel like singling out five or ten books from one particular year. But I’m feeling rather pressurised by the fact that everyone else in the whole world is writing them. So I’ve found a way out, which is a slightly random list of things I thought were extremely good in 2011. In the world of German books, I mean. So here I am in my sparkly dress, slightly tipsy on champagne and teetering down the runway in my highest of heels to present to you - the Amazing Love German Books Awards 2011!

Best New Publisher
That has to be the fantabulous And Other Stories. 2011 was their launch year and they published four books, including (ahem) my translation of Clemens Meyer’s short stories, All The Lights. They took Clemens and me on tour of the UK along with the lovely Juan Pablo Villalobos and his talented translator Rosalind Harvey. And Juan Pablo’s short novel Down The Rabbit Hole was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award – the only translation on the shortlist. Check out their website to see how you could get involved too.

Best Old Publisher
Seagull Books for continuing their German and Swiss lists with a plethora of beautifully designed books. They’re also setting up a publishing school in Calcutta, they run a gallery and events series, and are all-round lovely people. The booth to be at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.

Best German Publisher
This is a tough one because there are quite a few German publishers I think do really great stuff. But at the end of the day it has to be Schöffling & Co. – because they publish only good fiction and poetry and no bumpf to keep the quality stuff afloat. And also because if there’s one beard I approve of (apart from my father’s) then it’s Klaus Schöffling’s beard. If you want to grow a beard, grow a three-foot-long flowing white one.

Best Publishing Party
I did actually attend a couple of publishing parties this year, the kind with free food and drink and standing around making small-talk until everyone feels drunk enough to crack a smile, by which time I usually have to go home. Best though was the Party der Jungen Verlage at the Leipzig Book Fair. Easily the best party in German publishing because all the cool people go there and actually dance. And the location is a disused post office with all sorts of dark and dingy corners. Plus you don’t need an invite so I can go along. Also I was a bit mean about the rather less good indie publishers’ party at the Frankfurt Book Fair, so this is to remind everyone that they can do it really well sometimes.

Best Publicity Campaign
Has to be for Simon Urban’s Plan D. OK, the writer works in advertising so he has a head start, but the novel has its own cheesy pop song, its own car model and its own brand of lemonade. Go to the beautifully designed website to check it all out – hours of fun:

Best-Dressed German Writers
Tough, particularly among the ladies. But not that tough actually, because two outfits stole the show – Annika Scheffel for a gorgeous black (wool?) dress with a thin red belt and nice shoes, and Jan Brandt for a Mark Ronson-style not quite Butlin's-red suit combined with a thin black tie. I can see a pattern emerging here.

Best Blog Initiative
How can I not bow down in awe to the glory that was German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy? An astounding 121 German-language books reviewed on a whole host of different blogs during November. Ladies, I salute you!

Best Translation Initiative
The new translators-in-residence programme at London's Free Word Centre, where the lovely Rosalind Harvey (see above) and Nicky Harman thought up all sorts of off-the-wall-out-of-the-box activities to bring translation out of its ghetto. More please!

Best love german books Post
Because hey, no one else is going to give me a prize – my favourite blog post of my own for 2011 was my investigative report on the relative merits of the e-book and print versions for capturing male attention on public transport.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

The Great Love German Books Seasonal Gift List

You know what it's like - you're a complete German book freak and you just long to spread the love, bringing the joy of Teutonic writing to all your nearest and dearest. But your average book store doesn't cater to your taste, perhaps considering it strange or idiosyncratic for some unfathomable reason. So you're left wallowing in a mire of confusion over what books to buy for all those friends and relatives sadly incapable of reading German.

But never fear, for the Great Love German Books Seasonal Gift List is here! With recommendations of German-language books published mostly this year in English translation. Loosen your purse-strings, Germanic literature evangelists, and go shopping.

Small print: I must add that I haven't test-driven every single one of these books personally, but I'm sure any German book that passes the translation hurdle must be of above-average standard. The list does, however, reflect love german books' personal taste in that it is almost entirely devoid of dead writers. Sorry.

For intelligent sports fans – Ronald Reng: A Life Too Short. The Tragedy of Robert Enke (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

For true crime fans – Ferdinand von Schirach: Crime (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

For Russian food fans – Alina Bronsky: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (trans. Tim Mohr)

For poetry fans with a sense of humour – Monika Rinck: To Refrain from Embracing (trans. Nick Grindell)

For people who long for summer – Ingo Schulze: Adam and Evelyn (trans. John E. Woods)

For the modern woman – Annemarie Schwarzenbach: Lyric Novella (trans. Lucy Renner-Jones)

For the modern woman traveller – Annemarie Schwarzenbach: All the Roads are Open (trans. Isabel Cole)

For romantics – Daniel Glattauer: Love Virtually (trans. Katharina Bielenberg/Jamie Bulloch)

For romantic anthropologists – Thomas Pletzinger: Funeral for a Dog (trans. Ross Benjamin)

For gender anthropologists – Thomas Meinecke: Tomboy (trans. Danny Boyle)

For thriller fans with a strong stomach – Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

For Ireland fans – Heinrich Böll: Irish Journal (trans. Leila Vennewitz)

For witty crime fans – Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk! (trans. Anselm Hollo)

For historical graphic novel fans – Hannes Binder/Lisa Tetzner: The Black Brothers (trans. Peter F. Neumeyer)

For musical graphic novel fans – Arne Bellstorf: Baby's in Black (trans. Michael Waaler)

For Kafka fans – Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time (trans. Tess Lewis)

For European literature fans – Aleksandar Hemon (ed.): Best European Fiction 2012 (trans. various artists)

For Berlin fans – Inka Parei: The Shadow-Boxing Woman (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For working-class heroes – Clemens Meyer: All The Lights (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For traceurs – Rusalka Reh: This Brave Balance (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For anyone who thinks outside of even the obscurest categories – Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation to the Bold of Heart (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

Thursday 1 December 2011

Tim Parks in Sensible Comment Shock!

Regular readers will know I'm not a great admirer of Tim Parks' theories on how the fact books get translated is making literature dull and globalised. I summed up my objections here. The man himself has been in Germany recently and even took part in an event about his ideas in Berlin, which I sadly couldn't attend. Or maybe not sadly, because I'm sure it would have made me all angry and incoherent and given me wrinkles. He also gave an interview to Deutschlandradio Kultur, reiterating his ideas and giving one single example (Peter Stamm).

So imagine my surprise when I read Parks' latest missive in the New York Review of Books - and actually found myself nodding in agreement. Here, Parks writes about the translation of poetry and how it really helps to have an excellent knowledge of the original language. In many cases poetry is translated by poets, who often don't understand the source language at all or have only a rudimentary grasp. They do so with what we call an interlinear translation - an absolutely literal translation done by a non-poet.

I'm not going to make myself many friends by saying this, but that's a bit of a roundabout way of doing things. What I often find comes out of the procedure is more a new poem than a classic translation. (Oh, by the way, I'm reading David Bellos' Is That a Fish in Your Ear? so when I use the words "classic translation" you'll just have to think up your own idea about what that might mean, because of course there's no such thing. But more on that some other time - let's just assume we have reached an agreement about what a translation is, and it is a close approximation of the original text in another language.) Now there's nothing wrong with writing a new poem based upon one written in a language that's foreign to you and your audience. The book Buch der Sehnsüchte, for example, is a collection of Leonard Cohen translations by various German writers, some of them rather a long way from the originals. And there's a similar anthology of translations by German poets out there that I shall add in this spot as soon as I can remember the title. In fact, I've been told (by a translating poet) that only poets can translate poetry.

I disagree, and so does Tim Parks. He writes:
(W)hat often frees the student to offer better translations is a deeper knowledge of the language he is working from: a better grasp of the original allows the translator to detach from formal structures and find a new expression for the tone he is learning to feel: in this case, however, every departure from strict transposition is inspired by an intimate and direct experience of the original.
All this to arrive at the obvious conclusion that while expression and creativity in one’s own language is crucial, a long experience in the language we are working from can only improve the translations we make.
Interpreting is a key aspect of translation, and I feel a good translation has to be based on the translator's personal interpretation of the text. We have to feel the implications and hints, the flavour and allusions, we have to hear when a poem is leaning towards an advertising jingle or a Christmas carol just as when it's playing on a previous work. And while there are of course annotated editions of poetry that has entered the canon, most poems just have to stand on their own to be interpreted freely. To capture all those nuances calls for intimate knowledge of the original language and to re-render it, great skill in the target language.

The ideal translator for the purpose of rendering a close approximation of poetry, then, might be a poet or might not be, but would be a voracious reader of poetry in both languages.