Tuesday 31 July 2012

BCLT Summer School Post Mortem

As predicted, the literary translation summer school was too hectic to allow for any blogging. And then I had to recover. But I'm back now to tell you all about it.

I was (nominally) leading a group of ten aspiring and emerging translators, all of whom were already very good at translating. Much of my time was therefore spent feeling slightly superfluous and humble, until I hit upon the idea that I was simply there to provide some structure by telling them what to do and when. That made me feel much better, so I promptly carried on as before but with a clearer conscience, adding smatterings of advice à la "Well, I tend to do it like this but of course it's up to you."

There were two good things about that: firstly, I think the participants felt like they were getting some useful hints from my huge range of experience, and secondly, it meant I put into words some of the ways I work, reflecting on my own methods, intuitions and short-cuts. My mantra was really, however, Rules Are Made to be Broken - there's nothing worse than complacency in translation.

So what did we actually do? The group worked on three extracts from Nino Haratischwili's excellent novel Mein sanfter Zwilling. The first was the short, ten-paragraph prologue, which is very dense and obscure and gave everyone the chance to do a tiny passage on their own, which we glued together in breakneck fashion on the final morning. The second was a sex scene that veered more towards Fifty Shades than Mills & Boon. I chose it for the workshop because I always seem to end up translating steamy sex scenes (is it just me?) and I find it very difficult. My tip for the four brave women who stepped up to the challenge: I'm afraid you're going to have to visualise it. They did, with much gesturing and laughter, and produced an excellent translation. And finally, there was a deceptively simple narrative passage in which a woman tells a story from the Georgian civil war, where the difficulty was retaining the faux-naturalistic speech while not sacrificing literary quality. Again, I was very impressed by the outcome.

We were also lucky enough to have Jim Hinks, an editor at Manchester's Comma Press, joining us in one session. Before exchanging drinking anecdotes, we caused him excruciating embarrassment by presenting him with our sex scene for a spot of live editing. Imagine sitting in a room full of strangers, 91% of the opposite sex, and discussing the right adjective for an ejaculation. The poor guy did so well. Befittingly for a press of that name, Jim also gave us some excellent punctuation pointers. So if you're looking for well-punctuated yet exciting international short stories, look up Comma Press.

The USP, if you like, of the BCLT summer school is that the author is actually in the room with you. Nino Haratischwili was a delight to have around, providing background information to the novel and its settings and willingly answering all our questions. Not a jot of writerly arrogance - to my relief, she very happily surrenders the stewardship of her texts to editors and then to translators, which is not always the case. One thing that was interesting is that she writes fairly quickly and intuitively, whereas we can't work that way. So the trick is capturing that impression of spontaneity while actually painstakingly turning over every word.

The finished translations should be available online soon, at Norwich's great New Writing site. Last year's collaborative translation from Sabrina Janesch's Katzenberge is already there, and keep your eyes peeled for a very exciting project set to launch soon - a platform for collaborative translation by the name of "Translation Lab". Sounds oddly familiar...

To keep us on our toes, the late afternoons were given over to panel discussions (translators, editors, writers) and an interesting keynote speech by the Japanese-American translator and academic Michael Emmerich. Please don't ask me what it was about - although I understood it at the time, I couldn't piece it together again now. The subject matter was pleasantly challenging and entirely new to anyone who doesn't read Japanese, and indeed to most people who do. How innovations in printing technology forced a mass "translation" from one form of Japanese script to another. I think.

All in all, I came away exhausted and elated, having learned a great deal. I hope the actual students felt similar. I can wholeheartedly recommend the summer school to anyone starting out in the literary translation business.

Monday 23 July 2012

Greetings from Norwich

Here I am at the BCLT Summer School, where emerging and aspiring translators can go to workshop, worry and worship at the Max Sebald memorial bookshelf. I find myself leading a workshop that I took myself not all that long ago, and which I can genuinely say changed my life.* Which feels like going back to school, only this time I'm Mrs. Koshin.

It is of course an honour the size of Iceland and I'd been feeling rather inadequate, especially when I cottoned on to how humblingly good the participants are already. Only then we had a panel discussion on "My Life as a Translator", in which I was lined up with six very accomplished colleagues. Lucky I quickly won a prize this spring or I'd have fainted during the introductory round. Anyway, the wonderful and exciting and life-confirming thing was that despite their many many achievements, everyone else on the panel obviously also felt like a total beginner and a bit of a sham. Hooray! Perhaps it's similar to the way sensible people (in my book) rarely feel like proper grown-ups, no matter how many kids and mortgages and debts they may accrue. We're all still dressing up in Mummy's shoes and pretending to be big and clever.

The other delight was to hear that they're all still utterly passionate about their work and about the writing they translate. I'm still a little bit high, so please excuse any lack of coherent message here. Basically, I love my job and I'm very pleased to be among so many people who share that passion.

Blogging may be difficult this week for technical reasons, and because the schedule is very full. My posts may also be incoherent and overly gushing. So no change there then.

* In that it was the first time I took myself seriously as a literary translator and was taken seriously by others, in that I met some fantastic people who I've since worked with, in that I learned a great deal, and in that the week was terribly, terribly inspiring.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Bachmann Prize Retrospective

So obviously I missed one of the highlights of the German-language literary year, because they cleverly arranged to hold the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition while I had no internet access. Sheesh. Yet I have spared no effort to familiarise myself with - OK, not all 14 entries, but all the texts that won a prize in Klagenfurt. And you too can download them from the competition website and read them at the hairdresser's. Be prepared to hope she's not reading over your shoulder though...

Deutsche Welle wrote amusingly about the competition a little while ago, but if I were you I wouldn't believe the hype about how everyone's "waiting for someone to at least eat their manuscript again". Did I ever mention, by the way, how I used to see Rainald Goetz at my old local supermarket? We both used to finger the bread rolls because we're such rebels. But I've moved house now, did I mention that? Anyway, if the wackiest Rainald Goetz gets nowadays is fingering the bread rolls rather than slitting his forehead on live TV, what's the point of today's young writers trying to out-scandalise him?   

Whatever. So I read the five prizewinning texts at the hairdresser's and here's my take.

The audience award went to the Austrian Cornelia Travnicek for Junge Hunde, an extract from a novel. It's a nice slice of pop literature featuring teenage memories and dead animals, which didn't exactly make me sit up and beg for more. Maybe one to watch if you like teenage tales.

Then there's the Ernst Willner Prize, which is like coming fourth, and that went to Inger-Maria Mahlke. Does her text have a title? It doesn't in my printout. I know Mahlke's work because she won the Open Mike in 2009 and I read her debut novel, which I liked well enough. I also like that she's not writing about teenage girls or boys but about the seamy sides of life. This is the one that made me blush at the hairdresser's because it's about a mother out of her depth who gives up her crap job to work as a dominatrix. But it's very precisely written with some great observations and was the text that had the greatest emotional effect on me - and that's a very good thing.

Next up is the 3Sat Prize, which went to Lisa Kränzler's Willste abhauen. It's about a (pre)pubescent girl and her friend from the other side of the tracks, and is thoughtful and sensual and overtly political but didn't rock my boat so much, especially when compared to Mahlke's strong evocations of discomfort. Kränzler's debut novel is just out I believe, and is about a teenage girl who goes off the rails on an exchange to Canada. I dunno, I suppose you have to write about something, but in the course of this post it will emerge that I feel too many people write about teenagers, especially in connection with awkward sexuality.

The second prize is called the kelag Prize and went to the Swiss writer Matthias Nawrat for his Unternehmer. Which kind of blew me away, to be honest. I have no idea quite what it's about but I love that. Two kids don't go to school but seem to be scavenging for junk with their dad, a modern-day rag-and-bone-man with permanent rose-coloured spectacles. The obscure words and objects! And that crazy rhythm! Is it part of a future novel? I hope so, I really do. I have his debut Wir zwei allein on my shelf and will read it. He's also won all sorts of other promising accolades that make me think he must be a very good writer. My enthusiasm even overrides the awkward teenage sexuality incident.

Anyway the top prize went to Olga Martynova for Ich werde sagen: "Hi!". Not a text I warmed to. Siberian-born Martynova is another writer well on her way to the big-time, having recently garnered the emerging writers' part of the Chamisso Prize for non-native German-speakers and been longlisted for the German Book Prize in 2010 (back when teenage girls featured in about 80% of the nominated books). I recall not liking the extract I read from that novel either. Here, she portrays some small town or other through the eyes of a teenage boy just discovering his love of writing and his awkward sexuality. The judges said it captured major history in small stories. I was a little alienated that writers (including one of the other award-winners, incidentally) still feel the need to equate "Oriental" characters with 1001 Nights in their white characters' minds, and I found the historical references rather pat. Oh well.

Last year I advanced the theory that the judges like to choose the hardest text to translate as their winner. This year the translation programme didn't take place, sadly, but the winning text wouldn't have been the most difficult. Instead, the pattern I'm seeing now is that the winner isn't a young thing who studied creative writing, but someone more mature who's been through the university of life like Maja Haderlap and Peter Wawerzinek in the past two years. In fact, as far as I'm aware, no one with a degree in creative writing has ever won the Bachmann Prize, although a great deal of them have entered it. It makes you wonder whether the format - with significantly older judges passing verdict on the texts and their writers in the TV studio - is biased against the people so many critics love to hate: creative writing graduates. For Berlin's Open Mike competition, in contrast, the initial entries are read in anonymous form and current or former creative writing students tend to win.

Next year I hope to be back on track for more up-to-date Klagenfurt comments. I also intend never to move house again.  


I am back! I spent the past three and a half weeks eschewing adult company, only reading recipes online and moving house.