Thursday 29 March 2012

Gili Bar-Hillel and the 800lb Gorilla

Five out of ten times when I tell people I translate literature, they ask me: "Oh, did you translate Harry Potter? I bet you're really rich."

No. I didn't translate Harry Potter. I translate from German to English. Joanne Rowling writes in English and is translated into other languages. Her translator into German is Klaus Fritz. No, I don't know him. No, I have no idea how much he got paid. No, you probably haven't heard of any of the books I've translated.

Rowling's Hebrew translator is Gili Bar-Hillel. She writes a blog in Hebrew that I'd never heard of and can't read. But she's written a post in English that you ought to look at. In it, she details her humiliating treatment by Warner Bros. since they started making films of the Harry Potter series. She's been forced to sign away her intellectual rights to all the terms she coined in her translations, is not credited in the Hebrew versions of the films - and wasn't even given a complimentary ticket to see them. This seems to be contrary to common practice in Israel and it also seems to have been the same for all Rowling's translators.

It's a shameful tale. As Bar-Hillel points out, the small figures Warner Bros. might have had to pay to the translators to use their intellectual property have probably been outweighed by all the lawyers' fees to keep them out of it. Her blog is the only recourse she has to express her anger and humiliation against the Hollywood behemoth. I don't know if she'll read this post – just as Bar-Hillel doesn't know if Joanne Rowling will read hers – but if she does: my heart goes out to you, Gili, and I hope you receive some more tangible support and get what ought to be yours. Well done for taking a stand!

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Lady Bloggers in Berlin

I shall be talking to ladies from the publishing industry in April, along with Rery Maldonaldo and Nikola Richter from Los Superdemokraticos. Who I think are very cool, I've wanted to meet them for a long time. You should come, it'll be good.

Monday 26 March 2012

Ich nannte ihn Krawatte

The park bench is perhaps a little tired. Tired of serving as a vehicle to enable quirky relationships to form between complete strangers. If I see someone is sitting on a park bench, I personally don’t sit down there for fear of them becoming my friend over time and helping me to overcome my personal issues, while I help them to overcome theirs through my openness and generosity. You’ll be familiar with the format, I assume, from countless films and books. Are we really like that? I suspect not. If I were writing a novel about random strangers who open up to one another, they’d be two women who meet in the queue for a nightclub toilet. Drunk.

From Edward Albee to Lee Rourke, though, the literary park bench trope can actually do the trick if you treat it right. The question is, can each new writer who uses the park bench avoid the trap of the twee happy ending?

Milena Michiko Flašar, I would argue, almost manages it. She certainly has the requisite pair of couldn’t-be-much-different characters, and her setting is an unusual one for German-language writing. Ich nannte ihn Krawatte is 32-year-old Flašar’s third book. Her bench is in a park in an unnamed Japanese city and its inhabitants are a “salaryman” and a “hikikomori”. The white-collar worker is out of work but hasn’t told his wife yet and so has to spend all day wearing the tie of the title, eating his bento on said park bench. That plot device gets another cliché minus-point, I’m afraid. The reclusive youth has just started leaving the house again after an unspecified period in his bedroom. I’m not entirely sure what made him do so.

As you would expect, the novel deals with the two men gradually opening up to one another and giving each other strength. They talk about their respective problems in plainish prose – the young man is the narrator but the dialogues are strangely, I assume deliberately, unrealistic. There is shame here and mistakes and regrets and pressure, so much social pressure, all finally voiced in therapeutic clarity. The characters are fleshed out with memories, vividly narrated. And then they agree that the salaryman is to tell his wife and the hikikomori is to cut his hair, and my heart sank after rising continuously as the story proceeded. Please, don’t let that be the end. Please don’t let this be a heart-warming tale of strangers reaching out to one another across class and age divides.

This evening I was reading this piece about Ingeborg Bachmann by Elizabeth Bachner, and I felt quite inspired to write about loneliness and literature, but then I didn’t feel quite ready enough to expose myself as she does. It’s tempting, I’m sure, for writers to solve their characters’ loneliness almost like we try to find ways to dissolve our own. And it wouldn’t make a good story if the two drunk women in the nightclub toilets decided to go to an evening class or chatted to remote friends on skype or read lots of books, rather than forming an unexpected bond with each other and each of them instinctively knowing just what the other needed to do to make her life better.

But Bachner quotes Bachmann, whose character Ivan tells her writer character Ich in Malina, “It’s disgusting to put all this misery on the market, just adding to what’s already there, these books are all absolutely loathsome. What kind of obsession is this anyway, all this gloom, everything’s always sad and these books make it even worse in folio editions.” And after Flašar I read Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son, which is so far removed from either of these books as to be incomparable, and yet is full of misery and gloom with even the glint of hope at the end absolutely loathsome, and I came away in awe.

It’s all right. Flašar’s ending is a compromise. Things go badly for one character and well for the other. There is quiet misery, rendered very well, and there is resolution. 

Inka Parei in New Zealand

One of my favourite German writers, Inka Parei, is travelling around New Zealand in a campervan. You can read about her adventures and observations on her very first blog - in German, English and Te Reo Maori.

What I find fascinating about it is that otherwise, Inka writes about Germany, weaving contemporary history into her stories and going into great depth and detail. She writes slowly and carefully, revising over and over again. And now I can see almost the bare bones of her writing, for two reasons: firstly because she's observing the unfamiliar in a different continent, and secondly because writing for a blog demands a different kind of speed. Do take a look.

Thursday 22 March 2012


Have I ever mentioned my fantastic plan for avoiding reading the classics? The plan was to watch the movie versions instead and appear learned and well-read in polite conversation without having to do the dusty book thing. Except I never got round to it.

Should you be the other way inclined and never get round to reading contemporary German literature, you're in luck. Because right now, for some reason, German cinemas are a veritable carnival of literary adaptations! So sneak your favourite beverage into your local movie theatre (I find those mini bottles of bubbly ideal for this purpose) and pretend you're au fait with the literary now generation at the next party you attend.

Start off with Juli Zeh's Schilf, a top-flight clever detective-cum-physics story available in the UK as Dark Matter and in the US as In Free Fall. Next up is Glück, based on a short story by Ferdinand von Schirach - a love story you know's going to end tragically, taken from the collection called Crime in English. Not based on the newest of books but still contemporary, Russendisko (Russian Disco in the English translation) gives Vladimir Kaminer's Russians in post-89 Berlin tales the movie treatment. And then there's Daniel Kehlmann's Ruhm, an adaptation of the interlocking stories called Fame in English.

I haven't really been following the critical reception but you know how everybody hates literary adaptations. Nor have I seen any of the films. One adaptation I did see though was Faust, a bit of a waste for me on the classic adaptations front because I did of course read the play about a hundred years ago. But it was great arty fun, full of grunts and silences and bits that made you think you need new glasses. I'd certainly recommend it.

Wednesday 21 March 2012


I was at a very entertaining event last night - the German writer Felicitas Hoppe reading from her autobiography Hoppe. Hmmm, writers' autobiographies... perhaps not the most exciting genre in the literary world. "I got up, I had breakfast, I wrote, I had lunch, I did a bit of shopping, I wrote, I read a book, I went to bed." Alternatively, "I got up, I had breakfast, I couldn't write, I had lunch, I pulled my hair out in front of the computer..."

Alright, I'll stop now. I've already been accused of knowing nothing about writers' lives and I'll readily admit it. But you get the point, right? Despite the aura of intellectual glamour surrounding them at readings and events, despite all the "F*ck me Ray Bradbury" and "Hot chicks with glasses rapping about bookstores" videos, most writers probably don't have the kind of lives you'd want to read a whole book about. Unless they're Joseph Roth maybe. Thankfully, Felicitas Hoppe hasn't written a factual autobiography, she's written the autobiography she wishes she had. And to make sure we get it, she wrote it in the third person - hence the title, Hoppe, which is the name she gives to her heroine.

So she chose two places she barely knows, Canada and Australia, and refigured her origins as an only child with an absent-minded inventor as a father. Modelled on Uncle Quentin from the Famous Five novels – who's pretty much a blank canvas characterwise, what with being created by Enid Blyton. There's lashings of ice hockey and inventions but basically the book consists of a series of love stories, she told us, all stitched together by passages on board ships to the next exotic location. She read one extract set in Australia in which a teenage Hoppe meets a young man and lets him lead her around town only to find that he's blind and has no idea where they are either. Except that it was in the form of a story written by Hoppe - who is of course a German writer - with the narrator commenting scathingly on Hoppe's habit of lifting geographical details straight from the Baedeker.

All in all it was great fun. Very intelligent, very writerly with all those delightful twists and turns and references back and forth between reality and fantasy and fantasy fantasy like in the Hoppe character's writing. And very very funny. Just as an aside, Hoppe works so well as a comedic name - for me at least - because it sounds ever so slightly silly. I'm not sure whether that's the influence of English though. Whatever the case, you ought to read this book for the sheer joy of an invented life that's just that bit more out of the ordinary than most fictional lives. And now I'm going back in the jacuzzi with the Beastie Boys  - guys, don't eat all the pizza before I get there!

Monday 19 March 2012

Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation to Michael Hofmann

The American Academy of Arts and Letters has announced various awards, including "$20,000 to a practitioner, scholar, or patron who has made a significant contribution to the art of literary translation." And the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation goes to... Michael Hofmann, who has translated shedloads of books from German. This is his tenth translation award but not quite the richest - he won the famously generous International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1998 for his translation of Herta Müller's Land of Green Plums. Congratulations!

Sunday 18 March 2012

Edit Essay Prize

Probably the most interesting thing I experienced at the Leipzig Book Fair was the rather low-key award ceremony for the Edit Essay Prize. I say low-key because it took place in a gloomy dungeon room with a distinct whiff of sulphur on the air, at the very end of the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht when everybody was rather tired and emotional, including myself. But despite one G&T too many, I found the whole thing fascinating.

Edit is a literary magazine closely linked to the creative writing programme at Leipzig University. I met one of the current editors, Jörn Dege, last autumn, when he was in the grip of essay fever. The essay, he was convinced, is a neglected literary form in Germany, whereas the Americans excel at it. So they launched an essay competition.

An incredible 622 entries later, Dege kind of had to eat his words, and did so ever so slightly during the event. It would appear that Germans are yearning to write essays - but lack publication opportunities. I'd also say that a closer look at a few recent publications might reveal essays masquerading as all sorts of things. David Wagner's Welche Farbe hat Berlin springs to mind pretty instantly, as does some of the work of Carolin Emcke and Ingo Schulze. And I'm sure there are plenty more examples lurking out there on the boundaries of journalism and under the nebulous label of "texts".

Anyway, the first prize went to Simone Schröder for "Manchmal wie ein großer schwarzer Kasten". Schröder seems to have actually edited a vehicle for the German essay, the literary magazine elephant. (Another lesser-known litmag that encourages essay-writing is Freitext, by the way - I'm starting to spot essays hiding everywhere I look now...) She read from her piece about how we negotiate all the objects in our everyday lives and it seemed very impressive, although I found it a tad wandering. But perhaps that was just my mind.

Second place went to Francis Nenik for "Vom Wunder der doppelten Biografieführung". Those (male) judges who were present said it had split the jury: they'd raved over it while the (absent) female judges didn't get it. Being a major fan of macho writing, I fell into the first category. The text is printed in the literary supplement of Der Freitag so rush out and get it now - a wonderful, depressing, beautifully structured and fascinating essay about two poets on their uppers in 20th-century London. For more from the mysterious Nenik in German and English, go to the quandary novelists. You probably ought to.

Bruno Preisendörfer took third prize for his "Zeitsprünge". I wasn't paying attention properly but it seemed to be about John Cage and time. Preisendörfer is a totally cool geezer and writes an awesome and bizarrely not yet famous blog called Fackelkopf.  

All the prizewinning essays and more will be printed in the next issue of Edit. I look forward to it with interest.

Leipzig Book Prize to Wolfgang Herrndorf

Hooray! The fiction award from the Leipzig Book Fair goes to Wolfgang Herrndorf's rollercoaster secret-agents-in-the-desert novel Sand. You can read my review here. His editor was very happy indeed and didn't know the results in advance this time, allegedly. I have official dispensation to write that.

Without in any way meaning to detract from Herrndorf's literary achievements, I have detected a pattern: if you get nominated twice, you're highly likely to win the second time around. The same happened to Clemens Meyer with his short story collection Die Nacht, die Lichter. Sand is probably the most readable of the five nominated titles this year, with some of them being a tad "out there", and was certainly the readers' favourite. Incidentally, I heard at the fair that translation rights to his previous book Tschick have sold to the UK as well as the US. Double hooray!

The translation award went to Christina Viragh for her rendering of Péter Nádas' Parallelgeschichten. It's 1728 pages long and took five years to translate. If you read German I'd recommend taking a look at her recent piece about how she managed it without going crazy, in the trade mag Börsenblatt.

The non-fiction prize went to Jörg Baberowski for his book on Stalin and violence, Verbrannte Erde. The judges commented on the book, which I know nothing about: "The book's thesis is that the project of Bolshevism offered a justification for the mass murder. But it did not prescribe it. It was Stalin, a psychopath and impassioned man of violence, who smothered the dream of the new man in the blood of millions." Baberowski was rather sweet at the awards ceremony, thanking his wife for sharing the family home with Stalin for several years and promising it was all over now.  

Next year a lot of the judges will be replaced (they serve a three-year sentence). I wonder if that will influence the choice of titles, and indeed winners - we shall see.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

A Hiatus

I'm not blogging this week, as you may have noticed. That's because I'm taking part in the international translators' programme at the Literary Colloquium Berlin. This year there are 36 translators from 27 countries, ranging from Thailand to Finland, and we've been blasted morning, noon and night with information on German-language literature, readings, informal discussion sessions and even less formal meals and drinks with writers. If you translate out of German, I can't encourage you enough to apply next year. I've been lucky enough to take part a few times because I live in Berlin, and it's always been an inspiring event that leaves me physically exhausted but mentally raring to go.

Tomorrow we're all off to the Leipzig Book Fair. If you're there too you could watch me nursing my hangover on this panel all about the translators' programme and German-language literature around the world. It's at 10.30 on Friday morning, so don't expect rocket science.

As ever, I can't wait for the book fair. Leipzig for me is perfect - a book fair with a bare minimum of business meetings and maximum literary input. In fact I've been blowing Leipzig's trumpet for so long and so loudly that I run into more and more people I know every time I go there. Ten zillion readings in a smallish, friendly city, parties where you don't even have to gatecrash, a big glittery book prize announcement everyone can watch - and kids dressed up as Japanese killer princesses.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Judith Hermann and Matthias Politycki Longlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Today is International Women's Day. The fifteen titles on the longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize include two books written by women. Women do, however, make up two thirds of the translators. Two out of five judges are women. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has commented that men are translated more often than women, but that it's women who tend to do the translating. These figures would appear to back that up.

Anyway, enough gloom and doom, for one of those women writers is German and she is the lovely Judith Hermann, with her book of interlocking stories called Alice, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo. And I like Judith Hermann, she's cool and writes interesting stuff.

And another of the writers is another German and he is Matthias Politycki, for Next World Novella, translated by Anthea Bell. You can read my review here. I've never met him so I don't know if I like him but I know somebody who lives down his road.

My fingers are crossed for all four. Perhaps I can cheer myself up by seeing the list as a confirmation of women's leading role in bringing international literature into English, while simultaneously avoiding midwifery metaphors.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Go-Ahead for Erika Fuchs Museum

Erika Fuchs was probably the most influential translator in postwar Germany - she edited and translated the Disney comic Micky-Maus for many years, introducing a characteristic style that made a huge impression on colloquial German. Fuchs died in 2005, and now the local council of Schwarzenbach an der Saale has given the green light for the Erika-Fuchs-Haus, a museum of her legacy.

I'm not aware of any other museums dedicated to translators, and this one looks like it'll be an amazing experience. I downloaded the design concept from behind the previous link, and am now rather excited. As well as rooms focusing at the history of comics, the Donald Duck universe, Erika Fuchs herself and a comic library, one of the largest spaces will look at translating comics. I pretty much fell in love with it when I spotted the "onomatopoeic cabinet" but there's all manner of fun in store, with a chance for visitors to try their hand at comic translation, games such as an alliteration competition and seats in the shape of words invented by Erika Fuchs.

Building work starts in the summer, according to the dpa report.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

German Embassy Award for Translators To Katy Derbyshire

Ahem. Having encouraged you all to enter the competition, I have unceremoniously scooped the prize for myself. Sorry guys.

But I'm truly excited and honoured to have been chosen as the winner of this year's German Embassy Award for Translators. The runner-up is Helen MacCormac.

I get to spend a month at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin on the shores of the beautiful Wannsee and to attend the Leipzig Book Fair. I'd like to thank my mum and dad and my daughter and all the judges.

Probably my favourite part of this slightly euphoric post is the combination of tags.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Where Is The D'oh! Button?

Admirably, The Guardian has published a translation of Günter Grass' poem in memory of his editor, the translator Helmut Frielinghaus. Unfortunately, they have failed to credit the translator.

Update: The print edition does actually credit the translator - it is the hugely talented Breon Mitchell.

Thursday 1 March 2012

UK Translation Summer Schools

Who wants to laze on a beach when you could spend your summer working on your literary translation skills? And this year there are two different summer schools on offer.

The first is in London at Birkbeck College from 9-13 July and costs £400 or £250 for students. There are courses for English native speakers working out of Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish – and an editing skills course for all. There will also be games, a competition, the opportunity to meet publishers, and guest lectures and discussions. Bursaries are available. There's also an online programme for free, which looks very interesting. The German group will be led by the heavyweight translator Shaun "Big Daddy" Whiteside, who is a top geezer. All under the very catchy title of Use Your Language, Use Your English.

The other course is at the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, from 22-27 July. Workshops are run on translating from Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Norwegian and Spanish, in this case working with a writer-in-residence. Plus plenary sessions, readings, discussions and editing sessions with visiting publishers. The week costs £500 including accommodation and lavish amounts of food, or £150 for tuition and lunch only. The German writer-in-residence will be Nino Haratischwili and the workshop leader will be me.