Monday 25 June 2012

Summer Break

I won't be blogging for the next three weeks. Why not read a book instead?

Friday 22 June 2012

On Loving

Last weekend saw the annual German literary translators' get-together, as I mentioned previously. And one of the features is an evening event at which translators read from their work on a selection of themes. I unleashed my inner diva and read a short story by Clemens Meyer, "A Ship Will Come", from my translation of his collection All the Lights.

Partly, it was a fantastic ego-massage exercise. Some Germans have a tendency to read in a slightly monotonous manner, so if you raise and lower your voice and speed up and slow down and do the kind of thing you'd generally do when reading a bedtime story, German audiences can be very impressed. And the atmosphere among literary translators, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, is terribly supportive and appreciative - possibly because we don't see each other very often - so people did actually come up to me over the weekend and tell me how much they enjoyed it. Which was wonderful. Thanks everyone!

But one major reason why I enjoyed it and the audience did too is that the story's just so damn good. I really, really love that story. I won't tell you much about it because obviously I want you to buy the book and enjoy it for yourself, but it leaves a lot open to interpretation and it gets you almost as confused as its protagonist. I love the way Clemens Meyer does that to his readers, it's a real art.

Later in the weekend there was a panel discussion between the writer Katharina Hagena and her English and Norwegian translators, Jamie Bulloch and Elisabeth Hallvorsen. The chair Gregor Dotzauer asked about the differences between writing and translating, suggesting that writers put more of themselves into the process. Now that may or may not be the case, but it made me think of something else.

One huge benefit we translators have - if we're lucky - is that we're free to adore the writing we work on. I imagine that most writers are never fully satisfied with their writing, similarly to the way most translators are never fully satisfied with our translations. But while I do feel that frustration, at the same time I can marvel at what someone else has put into words. And I can say, "Yes, I genuinely love this story!" I don't know, maybe I'm the only person who feels that way, but it gives me the conviction to present the writing I've translated with enthusiasm and - yes, absolutely - with love. I hope that comes across.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Fame at Last

I am now officially famous. Read about my reading adventures and passions at Shelf Awareness, if you will.

Monday 18 June 2012

More on Self-Translation defined previously, as in publishers having their own books translated into English and then putting them on the eBook market from afar...

Cologne-based publishers Lübbe have started doing just that with a serialized "webnovel" called Apocalypsis, written by Mario Giordano. You can download installments in English via Amazon or iTunes. Unfortunately I don't have the right device, which meant I had to ask someone to do me a favour. The reason being that I was interested in who translated it but the translator's name isn't given on either of those two pages, nor in any of the publicity material I found. That's unusual - most German translation contracts stipulate that the translator must be named in publicity material.

But she is named in the eBook itself: Diana Beate Hellmann, Los Angeles. She's an experienced translator, albeit in the other direction. But they also name the English editor so I assume the translation is of decent quality. Aside from the translator invisibility issue, if you're going to do the job yourself then this is the way to do it.

According to this PR text, the book "contains a  captivating blend of text, illustrations, video, audio, and interactive enhanced elements". Apparently, "what starts out as a sophisticated Vatican conspiracy, soon develops into a uniquely intense and spectacular thriller. Pope John Paul III has disappeared without a trace. The whole world is searching for him, including journalist Peter Adam. What he finds out exceeds the bounds of human imagination: evidence that the church is on the brink of doom and so is the world…."

Oh my. It's certainly an interesting experiment, and was launched with a bit of a bang at Hay Festival on 8 June, although not so much of a bang that I noticed it over here. And I love the way the protagonist has a totally international name - he could be German or Australian or Dutch or South African, for all we know so far. puts episode 1 at "#107,624 Paid in Kindle Store", compared to "#1.054 Bezahlt in Kindle-Shop" for the same episode in German on It's a bit too early to pass judgement, admittedly, but perhaps that demand issue I raised previously might be coming into play... But then of course I have to say that to prove my pessimistic point. I certainly wish them the best of success!

Thursday 14 June 2012

Where Are the Women in Translation?

Today Stefan Tobler of the top exciting British mainly-translation publishers And Other Stories tweeted that he thought "more men than women submit literary fiction. We'd love that to change! Submissions info here.... "

So if you're a woman writer and think your work would work for them, do submit.

But I was thinking about why it is that more men than women get translated into English. It's definitely the case; I just called up the most recent translation database compiled by Three Percent, in this case listing first translations into English in 2011. In a strictly scientific experiment, I went down all the first names of the translated authors and highlighted the ones I thought were probably women. Then I highlighted about half of the ones where I had no idea whether they were men or women, just to be on the safe side. I made it about 80ish women authors out of 360 translated titles. The list remained really rather white - even if I'm rubbish at sexing names, we can still assume women writers accounted for only a quarter to a third of translated titles last year. Next I went down the list of translators' first names doing the same. Too many women to count, I'd say roughly half - it looked quite yellow.

Why on earth could it be? A friend of mine once suggested translators aren't averse to picking authors by how attractive they find them. I decided to neglect this theory because it would involve too much speculation on the statistical sexuality of translators, and anyway it's not usually the translators who choose what gets published in book form. Although it might be an interesting topic for a survey of translators who submit to literary magazines. Anyone?

So I have three other vague and speculative theories. Firstly, many successful women writers write genre fiction, and less genre fiction gets translated into English. Just as an example, this piece about historical fiction in Germany says about two thirds of the writers published last season are women.

And secondly there's that thing about men being more prominent in female-dominated fields. Because publishing's basically run by women (except for the upper echelons, d'oh!), fiction's basically read by women and there are more women writing than men. So the smaller number of men rise to prominence more easily than, say, in the world of investment banking, and certainly more quickly than women tend to. There's been research on this - they call it the glass elevator effect. Or maybe men have retained their privileged position from the times when publishing and writing was still male-dominated and have only let women get into the runner-up positions. Or maybe all those heterosexual women readers are buying books based on the author photo on the back. Or all the heterosexual women editors are buying translation rights based on the author photo on the back. Or the men on the awards committees are handing out prizes to their peers and buddies. Whatever the case, very many of the big guns of international fiction are men, and it's the big earners, the big award winners and the big guns who get translated into English.

Thirdly, because a lot of canonical writers get translated and re-translated, there are still plenty of dead white men to be dealt with - although this isn't reflected as strongly as it might be in the Three Percent statistics because they don't include re-translations.

I'm not sure what can be done to get more women writers into English, other than raising awareness. But on a very low level, our AOS German-language reading group is especially reading three books by women with the aim of suggesting one of them for translation. Bucking the trend slightly, I count I've translated seven women and two men so far, with two more men on my to-do list.

Is Self-Translation the Future?

Benjamin Stein just reminded me of a speculative piece by Tom Hillenbrand (whose name I have to check every time I type it, sorry) about the future of publishing. Hillenbrand gives us ten bold theses on ebooks (in German), nine of which I won't go into.

However, point 10 is pretty damn fascinating for me, and prompted me to make a facetious comment when the piece was co-opted to a trade mag, which I rather regret now. Hillenbrand's thesis is that German (for the sake of simplicity, let's stick to just German) publishers or writers will start publishing their own English editions in Germany. He says the model in which a British or American publisher buys the English translation rights and then takes care of the translation and marketing will be passé in a fully digitalized market of the future.
The market entry costs are now negligible; no one is stopping the German publisher (or the author himself) from translating a book themselves and marketing it worldwide via iTunes and 
Even for a title that doesn't seem to have great potential for the English-language market, it will still make sense to put a translation onto the market on the off chance. The Anglo-Saxon market is gigantic and nobody really knows anyway why certain books are successful.
A translation only costs a couple of thousand euro, putting the digital book on Amazon is free and then the title is accessible for half a billion readers. It's cheap, it's high-potential and so everyone will do it.
I started discussing the point with Benjamin and soon realized I couldn't do so either in German or via a comments section. So I'd like to go into it in more detail here, with particular reference to my field, which is translating fiction.

To my mind, Hillenbrand has neglected one all-important factor in his calculation: the translator. While we are training up professional literary translators in the UK and the US now via degree courses and other programmes, there are still never going to be enough to meet demand should every author start "self-translating", as I'd like to call it, analogue to self-publishing. Simply because of the fact that English-speakers no longer feel any great need to learn foreign languages. (As a brief aside: read Tim Parks' latest column for the NYRB blog for a look at how favoured English-language fiction is on European markets. I may come back to this later.) Under these conditions, into-English translations would be a sellers' market and the price would presumably rocket up, well above Hillenbrand's already underestimated "couple of thousand euro". The supply side would be very tricky indeed.

Secondly, we have the issue of quality and quality control. It's not a new argument that publishers provide these services, which are not guaranteed in self-publishing. British and American publishers have contacts to translators and are in a position to judge the quality of their work, and to edit it specifically for their market. What does happen already is that German publishers commission occasional translations of non-fiction titles, often on popular historical subjects (i.e. Nazis), which they do market themselves inside Germany, to tourists. However, the translation quality is hit-and-miss and the editing process is difficult, let's say, because the books' original editors aren't in a position to judge the translation quality and have to rely on freelance native-speaker editors whose work they usually don't know either.

Moot point number three is demand. There's already very low demand for translated fiction in English-speaking countries, for whatever reasons. Now I don't pretend that UK/US publishers have unquestionable taste, but at the moment it's them who guess at what might drum up some demand among English-speaking readers. In my modest experience of German publishers' ideas of what might go down well in the UK/US, I'd say they're not always terribly good judges. And if we ask the authors themselves, well. We all have ego issues. With the way things are going, I don't see demand increasing sufficiently for it to be worthwhile investing - let's say - €10,000 (for translating, editing and typesetting a short book) on the off chance.

Benjamin also raised the point of German publishers lacking knowledge of the UK/US market with regard to taste in cover design, marketing, etc. I think that's a very good point, although Hillenbrand seems to be arguing that there won't be much need for those aspects in his publishing u-/dystopia.

So while I suspect self-translation will indeed happen more often in the future as it gets easier to produce books in digital-only form, I don't agree that everybody will jump on the bandwagon. Certainly I wouldn't recommend it, although if the idea were to take off, the quality glitch at least might be ironed out over time. What I find fascinating is the way Hillenbrand's thesis is almost diametrically opposed to Parks' idea of Anglo-American fiction's dominance and its effects on European reading (and writing) habits. At the risk of getting facetious again, under the present circumstances self-translation would be pretty much a vanity project, and an expensive one at that.

Update: As this brief item in German trade mag Buchreport reveals, it turns out that some publishers are already involved in self-translation. More soon.   

Update update: Here's the more.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Saturday Night's All Right for Dancing

Literary people! You know what you don't do enough of? Dancing. There are just too few opportunities to mix fiction and foot action. But this Saturday you can do exactly that! In two different places!

First of all, if you're anywhere near the bright lights of Wolfenbüttel, you can gatecrash on the German literary translators' annual meetup. Where myself and my colleague Steph Morris will be spinning the wheels of steel at the KuBa-Halle under our nom de stylus, DJs Lang 'n' Scheidt. He's Lang, I'm Scheidt. Ha ha - it's a hilarious pun! We play music to make translators beg for more until the early hours. Here's a bit of what we played last year. This year DJ Lang has even more eighties treasures and I've got more trashy soul than you'd ever want to hear.

If you're in Berlin and thinking - Oh no, I won't get to dance with literary translators, I'm really upset but I can't afford the fare all the way to Wolfenbüttel and where would I sleep and what if they don't let me in? - then you're in luck! Because this coming Saturday is "a day of Austrian literature by the Wannsee" with all sorts of top Austrian writers and their publishers and dancing afterwards! At the LCB! And I know the DJ, he's my mate 4-Phase-Stereo! He'll be making your feet tap and your legs jerk and your shoulders shake in a fairly un-Austrian way, and he has very cool glasses and the only moustache I like in the whole of Berlin.

What makes me very happy is that they haven't said, Hey, there's a writer/editor/book nerd who has an interesting record collection, let's ask (invariably) him! Because in my humble experience, writers/editors/book nerds don't generally make good DJs. You just can't dance to Leonard Cohen, can you? Now translators are a different matter of course, just think of Tim Mohr, translator and DJ extraordinaire. We have rhythm in our blood, you know, and we're used to hiding our light under a bushel - which is what a good DJ has to do, I'm afraid.

If you're not in Berlin or Wolfenbüttel you'll have to find your own party on Saturday nite. But rest assured that the entire literary and translatorly community will be shaking their booties on the floor along with you in spirit.

Friday 8 June 2012

Anthea Bell on German Writing and Free Speech

My personal translation idol Anthea Bell has a piece in today's Telegraph (ah, well) about how some of the books she's translated reflect on freedom of speech, featuring two sentences that made me smile and sigh in recognition:
For a start, translators from German collect a depressingly well-stocked bookshelf of background material on Hitler and the Holocaust. The Nazis were the ultimate deniers of free speech, and echoes of their policies rumbled on for years.
A nice little look at a few great books and what ties them together other than Anthea's translatorly hand.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Dear Mely Kiyak

Mely Kiyak is a columnist for the Frankfurter Rundschau. She writes witty, caustic weekly open letters to politicians, hypocritical TV chefs, analogue satellite TV, people looking for flats in Berlin, and pretty much anyone or anything who alerts her attention or ire. She tends to be rather rude. Her column devoted to Sakineh Ashtiani won the prestigious Theodor Wolff Prize for journalism last year.

Mely Kiyak was born in Germany to Kurdish parents and took German nationality as an adult. She takes an active interest in racism and neo-fascism in Germany and often addresses the subject in her writing. As such, like many of us, she was incensed by Thilo Sarrazin's mega-selling racist book Deutschland schafft sich ab and then commented on a recent TV appearance of his to promote his latest work about how Europe doesn't need the Euro. I don't know what she wrote because she made a mistake and insulted Sarrazin in it on the subject of his lisp and stiff facial muscles, which she didn't know were lamed by an operation. She soon found out. A wave of indignation from right-wing bloggers and journalists hit her unexpectedly and the column was taken offline in an attempt to calm things down.

Her clarification came quickly:
At no point was it my intention to belittle him personally. Thilo Sarrazin appears unusual in public discussions and requires tolerance and consideration due to his language, gestures and mimicry. He himself, however, refuses this consideration and tolerance to others with regard to appearance, lifestyle, origins and disposition. What I intended was to point out his own imperfections – not due to physical factors – in his presentation; I now find that the means I used were not inadmissible. Had I known the physiological background I would not have chosen the image. I greatly regret that. 
Too late, however. As the Frankfurter Rundschau writes, the reaction has developed into a full-blown hate campaign. Kiyak and the newspaper have received hundreds of often anonymous abusive emails, calls and letters. Some of them have been passed on to the police.

I don't agree with everything Mely Kiyak has ever written. But I do think she has the right to write it without being subjected to abuse. The fact that Sarrazin's brave defenders have begun standing up for him as part of a minority - a person with a disability - while the man himself has spread numerous insults against ethnic and religious minorities would be funny if it weren't so tragic. At some point BILD demanded an apology from Kiyak. I'm wondering whether Sarrazin has apologized to all the people he's insulted over the past few years. Certainly his foreword to the paperback of his popular book claiming that immigrants are making Germany less intelligent as a whole apparently emphasizes that he's not willing to take back one word he's written. I haven't read it.

If you're in Berlin you can show your support for Mely Kiyak by attending a solidarity reading at the Ballhaus Naunynstraße this Friday evening. Writers, actors, playwrights and musicians will be reading from her columns. I shall try to attend.

Publishing the World

There are people you meet and just get on with instantly, and for me Brittany Hazelwood was one of those people. She works for the German Book Office in New York, where she and the equally lovely Riky Stock share their burning passion for German literature with the Americans. Anyway, Brittany's has about a hundred horsepower of get-up-and-go and has co-founded a publishing network for international literature. They've called it Publishing the World (presumably so they can recycle that Tears for Fears song Everybody Wants to Rule/Run the World for the third time as their anthem) and you can read their piece about it in today's Publishing Perspectives. I love the idea of all those idealistic junior publishing people getting together to poison each others' minds with talk of translation over drinks. There'll be a mutiny! I'm looking forward to watching them order the Lieutenant Blighs of the publishing world into the ship's launch and sail their ship onward to devote their lives to living in harmony with all those literary Tahitian beauties.

Most importantly for me, not being a young publishing person in New York on the lookout for enticing foreign titles, they also have a shiny new blog. Weekly round-ups, reports on their book club, what books are on what tables at what New York bookshops, and kittens in blankets.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Hooray for Juli Zeh, Ilja Trojanow and Benjamin Stein!

There's been a great deal of hullaballoo in Germany recently about Urheberrecht. Which is like copyright only the rules are slightly different, I believe. First a musician-cum-writer gave an angry radio interview about people expecting something for nothing on the internet. There followed statements by groups such as scriptwriters, crime writers, and so on. Then several thousand writers signed an appeal against alleged calls to abolish Urheberrecht. I'd have linked to it except it keeps making my browser crash. That might (but probably doesn't) have something to do with the fact that anonymous activists got annoyed with them and published a list of their email addresses. Thus making the anonymous activists look terribly big and clever, but perhaps not helping the debate along hugely. A number of individual writers then presumably felt threatened by the nasty electronic media and wrote rather silly pieces about how the net is ruled by semi-illiterate idiots. Then came the counter-appeals, and so on and so forth.

I'd been holding out on the subject, to be frank, because it's a very complicated issue that I feel is something for people to work out who understand intellectual property law, i.e. lawyers. And although I was encouraged to sign the mass appeal I decided not to. I can understand why German writers are running scared, looking at the record industry's rapid decline transformation. I'm an old-fashioned girl but I know musicians and even record sellers who download tracks illegally. And then imagine you've just woken up to the existence of the e-book, like basically all of Germany, and think what a shock you'd get. Eavesdropping on countless Facebook conversations, I could see that even those writers who are actually on Facebook and thus, like, totally down with the kids, are worried about pirated electronic copies of their books.

The only point of my own I have to make, which has no doubt been made before but after a while I stopped following the debate, is that I know musicians now make up for some of the losses caused by illegal downloads through live appearances. And they're something that many writers shine at too, and which can already earn them a lot decent amount of money once they hit that point of people wanting to pay to see them. Especially in Germany, where they're paid as a matter of course. So calm down, will you?

Well they already have, but I still wanted to draw your attention to three writers who are saying things I think make sense. First of all came Benjamin Stein in his blog Turmsegler. He pointed out that criticism of the evil middle-men is exaggerated, because writers need someone to do their editing, printing, marketing, royalties accounting, and so on. And that customers don't necessarily want to get creative content for free, as the major success of iTunes proves - they want things to be reasonably priced and simple to get hold of. Yes, he says, reform Urheberrecht to reflect what the internet enables us to do now, but don't abolish it.

Then Juli Zeh was interviewed along with her publisher Klaus Schöffling (love german books German publisher of the year 2011!). That was in last week's issue of the weekly Die Zeit. And here, Zeh says that high pricing of e-books encourages illegal copying, while Schöffling says, well we're not a big enough company to start lowering the prices. A strange argument, considering he also says they only sold 270 electronic copies of a hardcover that broke the 20,000 margin. But neither of them are keen on punishing individuals for ripping off e-books.

And then Zeh - who's a lawyer, hooray! - and Ilja Trojanow had a terribly sensible piece in Sunday's FAZ. They point out that piracy is so far no real threat to German writers and they add some realistic calculations to the mix. They remind us that nobody's seriously suggested abolishing Urheberrecht anyway, no, not even the digital Blackbeards of the Pirate Party. And they suggest that the upshot of all this focus could be yet more surveillance on the internet.

Oddly enough, all three of these authors have made it into English. Benjamin Stein's novel The Canvas (trans. Brian Zumhagen) is coming out any day now from Open Letter Books - a tiny weeny publishing company that has done its bit on the innovative e-book pricing front, incidentally. Ilja Trojanow made it big, big, big with his Collector of Worlds (trans. Will Hobson), and Juli Zeh's latest English translation (by the wondrous Sally-Ann Spencer) is The Method - about a meddling state. My guess is that Stein's just incredibly internet-savvy - being one of the very, very few German writers who even blogs, and an IT bod aside from that (and apologies for these parentheses inside dashes, but I'd just like to emphasize my belief that a lot of German writers and indeed readers are still very shy of the internet in general, which is something I'll rant about on another occasion) - and Trojanow and Zeh have seen the future in the UK and US book industry and aren't afraid of it.

Certainly the whole debate hasn't shown many people in a good light. Now the political parties are gradually launching new position papers on intellectual property rights and the internet, safe in the knowledge that thousands of voters really are interested. Of course that's all much less sexy than signing an appeal - on a website to boot.

Monday 4 June 2012

Call for Submissions – no man’s land # 7

Contemporary German-language fiction and poetry in English translation.
Deadline: August 1, 2012.

no man’s land, the online journal for contemporary German literature in translation, is seeking submissions for its 2012 issue.

For prose, send up to 3 texts (stories or self-contained novel excerpts, max. 4,000 words each) by one or different contemporary* writers. For poetry, send work by up to 3 poets, each to a maximum of 5 poems. No simultaneous submissions, please, and – with some possible exceptions** – no previously-published translations. The deadline is August 1, 2012 (postmark date), and we will inform contributors by early September 2012; the issue will go online by November. We regret that we are unable to offer honoraria.

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

If you can include the original text in file format (PDF or other), we prefer that you send submissions electronically to Isabel Cole at Otherwise, mail them to no man’s land, PO Box 02 13 04, 10125 Berlin, Germany.

So that we can save time and avoid misplacing your work, we ask that you observe the following guidelines for electronic submissions:

1)     Submit all texts (poems or prose) by one author in the same file (i.e. not a separate file for each little poem).
2)     Name the file with your translation as follows: pr for prose, ly for poetry_your last name_the author’s last name_e. So Anthea Bell’s translation of prose by E. T. A. Hoffmann would be: pr_bell_hoffmann_e.doc. Name the file with the original the same way, but ending with _dt (pr_bell_hoffmann_dt.doc). Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke poems would be ly_mitchell_rilke_e.doc, and the original would be ly_mitchell_rilke_dt.doc.

Apologies if this sounds complicated, but it really is a great help!

For more information, see our “Translators’ Tips” on the no man’s land website, and feel free to contact us at the above e-mail address.

We look forward to reading your work!

The Editors, no man’s land

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

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

Sunday 3 June 2012

Spot the Translator Contest

CEATL is an umbrella group for European literary translators' associations, now covering 26 countries. I didn't even know there were 26 countries in Europe!

And now they're fighting back on the familiar translator invisibility front. People sometimes tend to forget that translators exist, which isn't helped by publishers who don't credit us prominently or reviews that don't have space to name us. I have a special tag devoted to translator invisibility because it's a subject dear to my heart. I just counted and it now encompasses 19 entries. But how to raise the profile of literary translators? CEATL has had an exciting idea.

They're holding a contest for video artists, which you can read about on their Facebook event page. I quote: CEATL is
calling for video artists to create sparky and clever short films reflecting the existence and importance of literary translators, their challenges, and their role in literature. Videos up to three minutes long are accepted, and a prize of 1000 Euros will be awarded for the winner on the International Translation Day, the 30th of September 2012.
Make films! Discover how much the camera loves translators! Join the competition! Win lots and lots of money! Make the world a better place! You know you want to.