Thursday 28 February 2013

Michelle Woods on Re-Translating Kafka

The other day I linked to Daniel Kehlmann's speech in praise of his translator, Carol Brown Janeway. I did so mainly because it's wonderful to see translators lauded in public, especially by such a high-profile writer. However, there was one part of the speech I actually objected to, and that was this:
Academic translating means, more or less, translating in order to make it sound bad. I am not joking. For quite a while now some of the more important University departments for translation have taught their students to stay as close to a text’s original syntax as possible, in order to make the reader never forget that he or she is reading a translation.
Now, I am not party to what goes on in university departments for translation - important or not - although I do have a modest insight into what happens in more practice-oriented translation workshops. But I do think Kehlmann missed the point with this comment. What I hope is going on is that translators are learning to find their own fine line between fidelity and betrayal, and also to question the notions in the first place. There are many times, in my opinion and indeed in my work, when I too think it's wise to retain a semblance of German syntax in English, but there are others when I feel it's asking too much of readers. There are times when I do in fact want them to remember they're reading a translation and times when I want to give rhythm priority over content, or whatever.

One of the places where I think and talk about translation in a practical way is the no man's land translation lab in Berlin. Literary translators, either professional or amateur, old hands, beginners or even those still thinking about trying it out, can come along and bring texts they're working on for us to go through in the group. A while ago one of us was translating Kafka fragments, so we were looking at how on earth to put Kafka into English, with the added difficulty that this was unedited, unfinished Kafka. What on earth did he mean by that, what might that word have meant in 1914 Prague, and just how important is that modal particle? In this case, most of us agreed that the translator Ina Pfitzner needed to stay pretty close to the original syntax most of the time. But there are other Kafka translations - for other purposes - that veer further away, for instance Michael Hofmann's excellent version of "A Country Doctor". What Hofmann does is embellish ever so slightly, teasing out the gruesome humour. Whereas Joyce Crick's translation of the same story is closer to the original and therefore more useful for scholarly readers. Neither of the two is objectively better for an imaginary universal reader.

Anyway, there is a fascinating interview with Michelle Woods - someone who does teach translation theory - at World Literature Today, in which she talks about her forthcoming book on re-translating Kafka.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Inger-Maria Mahlke: Rechnung offen

 Rechnung offen is Inger-Maria Mahlke’s second novel, and an extract from the book won her the Ernst-Willner-Preis at Klagenfurt. I liked the extract and - spoiler alert! - I enjoyed the rest of it too.
The book centres on an apartment building in Berlin-Neukölln, the up-and-coming neighbourhood of the moment. The narration alternates between characters living in the flats and their family members. Analyst Claas owns the building but moves into a vacant apartment when his marriage collapses – he is a shopping addict and has spent all his money on porcelain. His wife Teresa’s long-term lover has rejected her on retirement and she throws Claas out of their comfortable family home. Their daughter Ebba now lives above him but rarely leaves the flat, apart from to blackmail the African dealers crowded into the ground-floor apartment into giving her skunk. Her parents are blissfully unaware that she’s stopped going to her training scheme.
Elsa has lived in the building since the war, the last of the old tenants. Gradually losing her grip on reality, she is paid regular visits by Nicolai, who claims to be her grandson. Except she never had a child, at least officially. Nicolai, meanwhile, gets a girl of his own into trouble, a Mexican waitress-cum-artist working on a series of photos of her own menstrual blood. And then there’s Lucas, a compulsively neat boy whose only pleasure is video games. We never learn his mother’s name but we do find out that she quits her job in a bakery to work as a dominatrix.
As the temperatures fall towards Christmas, all the stories spiral towards disaster. One of the dealers has a road accident but can’t go to hospital, not having official papers. Ebba pretends to have passed her exams, Elsa waits and waits for Nicolai to come, the teacups gathering dust on the table and her memories with them, while he has family issues to deal with. Lucas’s mother loses her new job – her regular client loses interest – and walks out on her son, who has to cope on his own. And Claas starts hassling his tenants to get rid of them and charge more rent in this suddenly popular area – and gets obsessed with the ground-floor flat, which is sublet and has no heating.
A fire, a corpse, a flight, an ambulance, a policewoman and a stepfather change matters substantially for all concerned – along with Claas’ insurance policy on the building. In a strange way, Mahlke gives us closure for most of her characters, but the novel’s ending is more cynical than happy. In a good way, obviously.

The sections dealing with Lucas’ mother are particularly striking. Written in the second person, they were oddly affecting. I felt automatically closer to the character, which was disturbing as her life is plainly depressing and hopeless. We follow her nervous start as a dominatrix and her desperation when her new-found false confidence comes to an end. The story doesn't close well for her, and I shared that shock through Mahlke’s unusual narration, while another part of me felt self-righteous satisfaction at the character getting her just desserts. Mahlke’s prose varies its focus, moving comfortably between close-ups of doughnuts on a plate and global issues.

This is quite an unusual novel, I felt. In her debut Silberfischchen, Inger-Maria Mahlke looked at two underdogs thrown together when an old man lets an illegal Polish woman stay on his sofa. Here, Mahlke has again focused on the darker side of life and the kind of characters fiction writers often ignore: the working poor, illegal immigrants, penniless artists, old women and losers in general. Even those who are financially more comfortable – Nicolai, Claas, Ebba – have manoeuvred themselves into desperate situations. So while the structure is reminiscent of other novels revolving around buildings (Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Nicole Krauss’ Great House...), I found it darker and more interesting.

Rechnung offen has a finger on the pulse of the unebbing debates on gentrification in Berlin (and elsewhere). The backdrop to the stories is the changes in the neighbourhood, new shops and bars opening up, new people moving in. Through the landlord’s perspective, we see how and why rents are raised, and we see how that affects the tenants too. We learn Elsa’s story of surviving the end of the war as a teenage orphan, meeting the presumably lesbian Erika and working in a silk flowers company from 1945 until it goes bankrupt under pressure from Asian manufacturing. The illegal immigrants also place the novel in a global context, while Ebba, Nicolai and his girlfriend embody the more fortunate of Neukölln’s recent arrivals. 

Well worth reading for fans of Berlin literature and underbelly books. 

Note: This is a slightly altered version of a report for New Books in German.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Four American Things

Here are four top things from America:

There's my lovely friend George Carroll talking to Chad Post (also lovely) in the Three Percent podcast - about Seagull Books, Mo Yan, Inka Parei, and how cool they both are.

There's my other lovely friend Shelley Frisch on translation at Words Without Borders' Translator Relay.

There's Daniel Kehlmann, whom I don't know personally, on his translator Carol Brown Janeway, whom I don't know either, at Publishing Perspectives.

And there's something top from Germany about something not so top about America, and that is a story by Francis Nenik to mark Bradley Manning's 1000 days in prison. The story is under a creative commons license, and I'm told that translations are definitely desired. In case anyone was looking for something excellent to translate.

Sunday 24 February 2013

David Wagner: Leben

Regular readers may be aware that I'm a fan of David Wagner's writing and that I'd been looking forward to his new book, Leben. Well, I had and I hadn't - because I was worried it might be a rather upsetting read. A friend who knew the beginning had warned me it was rather dark and I'd also got the impression, talking to the author, that the writing process had been quite heavy-going. It's a book - a novel, an essay, a collection of miniatures, autobiographical writing? no matter - a book narrated by a man who gets a liver transplant.

Now allow me to get the cliché out of the way: the Germans are quite fascinated by illnesses, their own and other people's. Don't ask after a German's health if you're afraid of an honest answer. Outside of bathroom fittings, pharmacy frequency and the like, that's manifested in literature too. Kathrin Schmidt won the German Book Prize a few years ago with Du stirbst nicht, a semi-autobiographical account of a woman recovering from an aneurysm. Georg Diez described his mother's cancer in Der Tod meiner Mutter. Arno Geiger wrote about his father's Alzheimer's in Der alte König in seinem Exil. Wolfgang Herrndorf is detailing his life with a brain tumour pretty much in real time on his blog Arbeit und Struktur. All of the above are examples of excellent writing that confronts us with mortality. I'm not sure whether that's still a taboo, but it certainly doesn't make for light reading.

And so to Leben. Did I want to read something like that when I actually vaguely know the writer? I did. But I've been having difficulties writing about the experience.

The book opens with a short sharp shock: the narrator comes home late one night, eats a little something and suddenly starts bringing up blood. He calls an ambulance and goes into intensive care, knowing this means he has to go back on the waiting list for a new liver. What follows is a series of 277 miniatures about his time in hospital and in rehab, before and after the transplant. The narrator, and with him David Wagner, has an autoimmune disease whereby his body rejects his liver. He has been on medication since the age of twelve but has lived a fairly normal life, having fun, travelling, fathering a child. And now, well, he's confronted with his own mortality.

Wagner's narrator shares his thoughts and emotions, veering from suicidal to joyous and including how he deals with the unknown donor, throughout the process. These are hard enough to deal with. What made matters worse for me was that the state he is in often seemed degrading. Helplessness, hopelessness, boredom, ridiculous hospital-imposed routines, pain. Raised testosterone levels mean he has a bit of a one-track mind, presumably awkward when you're bed-bound. Or maybe the guy always has a one-track mind, what do I know? At times I found myself teetering between pity and admiration for exposing himself so honestly. That wasn't something I wanted to feel about this book, specifically about its author.

And then I read this piece in the FAZ, in which Wagner talks about how it's not quite autobiographical, or not entirely, or not in a straight-forward way. He worked on the book for five years, using his notes from his time in hospital but always with the benefit of hindsight, and always selecting what he wanted to use and what he wanted to cut away. Whereas his narrator speaks to us in his personal present tense, out of the very moment he describes - with all the immediacy and strength of emotion that entails.

There are other factors that make the book not just readable without crying, but thoroughly enjoyable. There's the writing, as witty and insightful and compact as usual. Then there's the humour. The book pokes gentle fun at the hospital and the people in it, the liver patients with their entertaining life stories and the nurses with their routine friendliness. What delighted me most was probably the narrator's memories as he lies in bed, of his previous lovers especially. I'm a sucker for that shit. And there's the form. Between the miniatures - does their length reflect the attention span of a sick man? - there are two special treats, a macabre prose-poetry list of bizarre deaths culled from newspaper reports and a collection of even shorter texts on the subject of tiredness. Are they personal aphorisms? I'm not sure what to call them but they include the following:
Tiredness is isolating; I'm tired all on my own.
Sex is tiring too. Post-coital falling asleep is easy, but not always desired.
So now to the niggle. It may well be a very personal issue or a personal reaction to the text. What I wanted from Leben was cynicism, intelligence, melancholy, a survival account, searing honesty, a radical rejection of pity. To some extent that was all there. But I also found another thing that made me feel uncomfortable, and that was the way the narrator rediscovers his will to live for the sake of his daughter. Being a parent, I realise we all think this way at times, making grand gestures and sacrifices, being strong and holding out for our children. Talking and writing about it, however, seems difficult without pathos coming into it. And while Leben is remarkably and delightfully low on pathos for the most part, where the narrator's daughter is concerned I felt it shining through more than I wanted. Which is something I didn't notice in Wagner's book about his daughter, Spricht das Kind (see my review).

Nonetheless, this is definitely my book of the season and I'll be truly upset if it doesn't win the Leipzig book prize. 

Speaking of pathos, you can order a nice plastic organ donor card here (in Germany) and you can sign up to the NHS's organ donor register here (in the UK). If you want to donate in the USA you can register by state here. It would be good if you did because I might one day need a new right eye. Thank you.

Friday 22 February 2013

LBF Literary Translation Centre

Most of the programme for the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair is now online. I want to go to every single event. I'll be talking about becoming a literary translator with Jamie Lee Searle, Tom Bunstead and Anna Kelly on the 16th of April, which also happens to be my fortieth birthday. I can't think of a better way to celebrate.

The centre is a marvellous place full of fantastic people. See you all there.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Eva Menasse: Quasikristalle

Last night saw the launch of the Berlin-based Austrian author Eva Menasse's third book of fiction, following the novel Vienna (trans. Anthea Bell) and the short stories Lässliche Todsünden. The new novel is called Quasikristalle, named for a type of crystals that make up an orderly pattern of different shapes and forms, although that pattern never repeats itself exactly. Which is kind of what the book does too.

Menasse tells the story of a woman's life from thirteen different perspectives, taking her from childhood to old age. Yes, she told us last night, she was very influenced by Sherwood Anderson, but no, she didn't have specific models for the novel. I won't give you the full summary because that would take up rather a lot of space. Suffice to say that we see the Austrian protagonist Xane Molin through the eyes of childhood and adult friends, would-be lovers, professional contacts, children and step-children, her father, her doctor, her landlord, a stranger - and in the middle, herself. The observers reveal as much about themselves as they do about Xane, if not more. And each chapter encapsulates a story of its own.

There are stand-out parts, however. For me, the second chapter was what won me over to the book - and how. A historian focuses his gaze on Xane during a tour around Auschwitz, narrated as almost all the others from an over-the-shoulder perspective in the third person. Everything goes wrong on the tour, including his advances to the much younger woman. His indirect voice is wonderfully cynical, addressing the ways in which we confront the Holocaust and veering grotesquely between the horror of the concentration camp and his flirtation. Another of my favourites comes at the end, told by Xane's now adult son. A warm and affectionate epistolary chapter that leaves us with hope for the future.

The structure is neatly hinged around three central chapters set in the middle of Xane's life, a time of self-doubt and near-crisis. Now married to an academic and relocated to Berlin, she feels drawn to a much older man and begins to question her decisions in life. We see a single incident from the man, Nelson's perspective, then from her own and then through the eyes of her rebellious step-daughter. Menasse read from the sole first-person chapter last night, saying she'd chosen it because it's quite funny. It is - but then again it isn't. Deep black humour features heavily in the novel, and here Xane thinks about what happens to women as we get older. The audience started off laughing together and gradually a gender divide opened up, with the women's lips getting more and more pursed and brows getting more and more furrowed. We were working on our own demise, engraving our wrinkles even deeper. A very nice man next to me carried on laughing but I was unable to observe what the suddenly quiet women were doing because I was feeling far too dejected about the fate that awaits me.

After that point the novel moves into the future, where Menasse addresses social questions such as overpopulation and aging, yet without ever getting so specific as to be full-out science fiction. As a whole, it uses a wide range of styles to suit the respective characters, showcasing Menasse's talent as a writer. She raises a whole battery of issues too, from domestic violence to Austria's role under fascism to reproduction rights to the meaning of friendship. And she seems to understand human nature and capture it on the page very well.

I was going to tell you what I thought Xane was like but the author said she didn't know herself. I'm sceptical about that actually, because I think even the oblique views we get of her reveal something about her, which the writer must have been aware of. But then people say things at readings and mean something other than what comes across. Or I understand something other than what they mean. So in fact, let me tell you that I enjoyed the novel very much as a portrait of a strong woman who clings to her naivety against all odds. I admired her a great deal, actually. And let me add that the novel would work very well in English. 

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Friedrich Ulfers Prize to Carol Brown Janeway

As the German Book Office has announced, the first ever Friedrich Ulfers Prize is to be awarded to translator and editor Carol Brown Janeway. The award "was created to award outstanding individuals who have championed the advancement of German-language literature in the United States." 

Ms. Janeway gets $5,000 and a sparkly trophy, handed over by Daniel Kehlmann, who she introduced to American readers in her translation. Other authors she's translated include Bernhard Schlink, Ferdinand von Schirach, Elke Schmitter, Benjamin Lebert and Thomas Bernhard. Congratulations!

Friday 15 February 2013

Christa Wolf: August

"August" is Christa Wolf's final short story, written six months before she died after a long illness at the end of 2011. In a letter printed in facsimile at the end of the slim book, she dedicates it to her husband Gerhard Wolf as a birthday present.

It tells the story of a small boy, August, who lost his parents to the war and its aftermath and spent three seasons in a TB hospital in the Soviet Occupied Zone. There he met Lilo, a teenage girl who helped take care of the younger patients. August adores Lilo, resenting every scrap of attention she devotes to anyone else. But Lilo is perfect in his eyes, and so can only be fair with her affections. We see everyday scenes, lessons and songs and stories, budding romances and sudden deaths in the "Mottenburg" or "consumption castle" - an old stately home as cold as an ice palace, where food is scarce and fat is unavailable. Gradually all the other children there die or have to leave, and finally Lilo too has returned to health and goes home to her family, much to August's regret.

August remembers the story in retrospect as he drives a coach full of pensioners back to Berlin from a trip to Prague. He has led a simple life, on his own until he met and married Trude, who liked to stay at home and spend holidays on their balcony in East Berlin. These are the achievements in his life: becoming a truck driver, being content with his wife, and having once learned, though Lilo, that sadness and happiness can come together. Now Trude has been dead a few years and he still can't get used to coming home to an empty flat, but in sum his life has been a good one.

It could be a very simple story about the beginning and end of a simple life. Yet "August" picks up on the very final section of Wolf's 1976 novel Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood). The protagonist crops up very briefly only pages from the end - inexplicably renamed Gus in Ursule Molino and Hedwig Rappolt's 1980 translation. And Lilo is all too plainly Wolf's alter ego Nelly from that book too.

Where "August" is simple (or seemingly so), Kindheitsmuster is complex. Narrated on three levels, it deals with Wolf's own childhood under the Nazis. A narrator describes, addresses and admonishes her adult self in the second person while detailing the writing process over several years in the early 1970s, including political and private occurrences. Along with her brother, husband and daughter, she visits the town where she grew up, now in Poland. And this visit is interspersed with the narrative of her childhood, which is told in the third person. 

Wolf's Nelly is subtly infused with Nazi ideology while her narrator feels only horror for what her childish self believed. And the narrator struggles to find the right way to tell Nelly's story without finding excuses for her and her family, and also to confront the fear and other emotions she felt after the end of the war. The book was rather a milestone in terms of autobiographical writing, I feel, and has been much studied. 

The August character is everything Kindheitsmuster's unnamed narrator is not. He feels no need for self-reflection, finds it hard to put names to his emotions and simply does not know or seem to care whether he's changed since his childhood. His voice is colloquial, not afraid of the odd cliché and occasionally repeating itself. And it never bothers him that his memories may be unreliable.

And yet there are many similarities between the two pieces of writing, despite the thirty-five years between them. They both share an oblique view of Wolf's own character, for one. Although she wrote about herself in the first person many times, her young self was obviously difficult to tackle head-on without some kind of distancing device. Nelly and Lilo are not identical; Lilo is a much better person, always kind and even-tempered and a little hard to believe, especially when tempered by a glance at lying, stealing Nelly. That adds a little irony, I felt, that won't have been lost on the intended reader Gerhard Wolf.

There is the structure too, with travel being across space as well as time. As August recalls his childhood while driving his bus homeward, so the narrator in Kindheitsmuster is driving around her former hometown and back to the GDR. In both pieces of writing, the tenses flutter mid-paragraph, memories tugging the narrative to and fro. And both books delight in colloquialisms, the head nurse in "August" rather reminiscent of Nelly's mother with her colourful turns of phrase.

Reading the two books together was an inspiring experience - reading "August" alone was a pleasure in itself. The unaccredited Faulkner quote opening Kindheitsmuster - presumably unnoticed by the translators and therefore rendered as "What's past is not dead; it is not even past" - holds true for both books. Yet had Wolf come to a more relaxed place in old age or through her new protagonist? For the next line does not seem to apply to "August": "We cut ourselves off from it; we pretend to be strangers." Or was she playing a game of pretending to be Lilo?

British Translation Summer Schools

So, having mouthed off about one translation workshop being too expensive, I shall now proceed to plug two cheaper and shorter ones. Neither of them is particularly short or particularly cheap, however. And unfortunately, they also happen to clash. But I'm guessing not many people want to do two translation workshops in one summer anyway.

The first is organised by Birkbeck College in London as part of its Use Your Language, Use Your English programme. You get five days of translation and editing workshops, with the German group led by Charlotte Ryland, who is excellent and lovely. There will also be publishing people visiting, a dinner, etc. The summer school looks at literary, academic and journalism translation, so has quite a broad base. People I know who took part last year were very impressed with it all. 22-26 July, £ 400 plus travel, food and accommodation costs.

The second is focused entirely on literary translation, at the British Centre for Literary Translation in Norwich. Again, it's five days of translation workshops but this time with the author present and a visiting editor. It'll be me leading the German workshop again, this year working with the delightful Daniela Dröscher as our author. The idea is also that this is an advanced workshop, which is officially described as follows:
In the advanced workshop, participants will focus on consensus translation of a text, with the author present in the room, but the selected text will be particularly challenging for translation. The advanced workshop will also include exercises and discussions on specific aspects of and difficulties in translation from that language.
In other words, we will approach Daniela's texts in a spirit of adventure, and I'm also working on some challenging extras to help us think more deeply about what it is we do as translators (from German) and how we do it. These won't, however, be theory-based. Plus there are all the usual panel discussions, etc. To take part you have to either have attended previously or have some experience of literary translation. I'd be delighted if you'd join me in exploring German-English literary translation - from 21-27 July, £ 550 including fab food and perfectly adequate accommodation or £ 160 for just tuition and lunch. Both plus travel costs.

Thursday 14 February 2013

SAND Translation Competition Winners

Here come the judge!

Order in the courtroom. The results of the SAND translation competition for under-30s have been announced. It says here:
Judge Katy Derbyshire chose Allison M. Charette’s story “Big” for its fully-formed, naturally fluent feel and well-rendered dialogue. The story is a novel excerpt from Grosse by Isabelle Rivoal. (...)
Catherine Hales was impressed by Julia Sanches’ translations of Ana Martins Marques’ poetry from A vida submarina (The Subaquatic Life) and Da arte das armadilhas (On the Art of Traps). She especially liked the sense of quietness at the heart of the poems, their poise and perfect pitch in the language.
I made them wipe all the names off the entries so I could perform my judging duties impartially. We'll be all workshopping together some time in the spring. Congratulations!

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Two Niggles

I'm in a bad mood. But there are two things that would still annoy me even if I was in a good mood.

The first is the Columbia University literary translation workshop (French-English) in Paris this summer. It looks fabulous:
Students will be working on the translation of a work of their own choosing. Formal workshops will meet for 3 hours, 3 days per week. Readings will be selected from theories and methodologies of literary translation, as well as from a number of contemporary French and Francophone novelists, playwrights, and poets. Translation will also be used as a means to understand and communicate cultural difference through French, African, Caribbean and Quebecois authors. In addition to the workshop, there will be lectures and seminars for 2 hours, 2 times per week with writers, translators, editors and publishers on the contemporary scene. Students will also be required to attend plays, movies and read the French press on a weekly basis. Additionally, optional language courses will be provided 3 times per week for 1 hour each.
Four weeks of deep instruction and practice with an accomplished literary translator are no doubt an amazing thing, plus all the great extras. But scroll down to find out the costs: all in all (including accommodation but before travel and living expenses, including obligatory theatre and cinema tickets) those four weeks come at a price of $7816. That's €5800.

Am I being achingly naive? Is it because I'm not American? But who on earth can possibly afford this? I know I couldn't and I'm working full time. It's a wonderful opportunity, but it's not like it'll guarantee anyone a well-paid job afterwards.

Here's my second niggle: The University of Bristol is holding a translation competition. They're calling for translated extracts from Ernst Jünger's travel writing. Great, wonderful. There are cash prizes. And then they say:
Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) was one of the most significant writers and thinkers of 20th-century Europe, and is one of the most controversial. He became famous with the publication in 1920 of In Stahl­gewittern [Storm of Steel], an account of his experiences in the trenches in the First World War. In the following eight decades, Jünger published more than fifty works, including diaries, novels, stories and essays. His novella Auf den Marmorklippen [On the Marble Cliffs, 1939] is a thinly veiled critique of the Nazi regime. Tributes by writers of international stature (including Jorge Luis Borges, Bruce Chatwin, and Heiner Müller), as well as visits from European heads of state and government (such as François Mitterrand, Roman Herzog, Helmut Kohl, and Felipe González) have helped secure Jünger a prominent place in intellectual debates across Europe.
Well, don't bother telling anyone why he's controversial, will you? I'm reminded of a recent event where a Norwegian diplomat made equally veiled references to "difficulties" with Knut Hamsun. I think it's safe to say that Jünger was a right-wing nationalist who was courted by the Nazis and the most conservative elements of post-war West-German society. And yes, as time passes the judgements on him are becoming more nuanced. But still. Literary critic Jörg Magenau, firmly located within the left-wing camp as a former taz editor, recently wrote a double biography of Ernst and his brother Friedrich Georg Jünger, Brüder unterm Sternenzelt, which is no doubt fascinating if you'd like to investigate further.

Have a good day.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Indiebookday? Indie Book Day.

There's no idea that can't be recycled in German*. And the great thing is, the German language allows you to make one long word out of three short words*. So the American initiative Indie Book Day on 16 March is echoed* a week later (presumably so as not to clash with the Leipzig Book Fair) by Indiebookday on 23 March.

The idea seems to be to march into a bookstore, preferably an independent one I guess, and buy a book from an independent press on that day. Just to spread the financial love. I will probably forget but I do have a special policy with independent presses. I normally know no shame about requesting review copies from major publishers. They're always very kind about at least whipping over a pdf, if not in fact showering me with hardcovers. I think of it as being analogous to butchers giving children a slice of sausage - is this something that only happens in Germany? I am like the child who will nag her parents to buy a whole 200 grammes of Bärchenwurst until they give in out of sheer exhaustion. You, dear readers, are my parents who will... OK, the comparison doesn't work all that well but you get where I'm going, right?

With independent presses, however, I am now very careful about asking for free books because I know they're operating on a shoestring and they have to spend an hour pedalling on a re-jigged exercise bike to generate the electricity to answer their emails. They're doing it for love so I like to splash actual cash on their books. You could too.

*Update: So here's the oddest thing: the very charming Daniel Beskos of Mairisch Verlag, who came up with the idea for Germany, says he didn't even know about the American equivalent until he'd created the whole website and everything! Isn't that totally crazy? He says he was inspired by Record Store Day. And just so you don't think he'd do such a tacky thing as recycling an idea, I thought I'd better let you know. There's also a Record Store Day Germany, by the way, which I bet is copied from America.    

Sunday 10 February 2013

Masterclasses and Translating Sex

London is rather nice in the spring, you know. And if you're going anyway you could sign up for a translation masterclass at the London Review Bookshop, in collaboration with the British Centre for Literary Translation. Here's what they say:
Each half-day session focuses on a single language and will be structured around close work on texts sent in advance to participants. Discussion will centre on the differences in approach evident in variant translations of the same texts. Participants should have a good working knowledge of the language and will be invited to prepare their own translations of the texts under discussion.
The workshop leaders are pretty stellar, too: Edith Grossman, Anthea Bell, Howard Curtis... and at  £75 a pop the sessions are affordable compared to longer affairs. 

Plus, not only to grab your attention, the bookshop is hosting a live translation event on Translating 
Sex. Out of French, naturellement. With two babes of the translation world, Polly McLean and 
Adriana Hunter, going head to head on a specially commissioned saucy short story by Emma 
Becker. With Sarah Ardizzone in the middle, they'll explore the delights of translating erotic fiction,  getting down to the nitty gritty of sexy voice and vocabulary. Then the next day both lovely ladies will give a masterclass (each) to let you have a go at doing it too.

Friday 8 February 2013

Chamisso Prize to Marjana Gaponenko

Doh! You go abroad once ever and they go and award a prize while you're away. The Chamisso Prize is for writers in German whose native language is not German. And this year it goes to Marjana Gaponenko. She's published two novels, most recently Wer ist Martha?
And she gets €15,000.

There are also two prizes for emerging writers worth €7000 each, which go to Matthias Nawrat (definitely one to watch in my book) and Anila Wilms.

The press release came out in mid-January, so the other judges won't have dreamed it would be an issue working with Denis 'Blackface' Scheck on this. I've stated in the past - and I'm not the only one - that the Chamisso Prize is a rather patronising institution, despite its good intentions. I've since come to the conclusion that it's not the prize itself that's the problem. After all, distributing nearly €30,000 between three writers has to be a good thing, and the programme gives them much-needed publicity, takes writers into schools as role models, etc. The problem is the way it establishes a category, cosily labelled "Chamisso literature" when it actually means "writing by foreigners" - haven't they done well for themselves? The problem is the way writers from elsewhere end up on panels together, discussing writing from elsewhere, while their writing itself may well have nothing in common. The problem is the way writers from elsewhere don't end up on panels with writers from here, discussing the future of literature or avant-garde narrative technique. The problem is - shouldn't it be irrelevant where a writer is from?

It's not, of course, partly because there is still demand for twee stereotyped representations of, say, Turkish-German lives with donkeys on the cover, which call to mind those books set in India in which chutney plays such a large role. Could we indeed speak of a "donkeyfication of German"? A subconscious desire to keep ethnic writers in their place? What the Chamisso Prize does not do, and this is probably the most important of its saving graces, is honour that kind of writing.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Leipzig Nominations

The nominations for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair - the literary award of the season - are out now. There are three categories: fiction (including short stories), non-fiction and translation. Sadly, I can't link directly to the lists so if you're interested, please just navigate there from the link above.

Here are the five fiction titles:

Ralph Dohrmann: Kronhardt
A very long debut novel about sixty years of West German history. It's got a lot of praise since it came out last August but seems to be one of those books sadly overlooked by prize juries. So far. Its editor was very excited about it last summer, or at least I assume this was the book she told me to keep my eyes out for. I'm pleased for her.

Lisa Kränzler: Nachhinein
Yay! Teenage girls! Young writer Kränzler won a prize in Klagenfurt with an extract from this unconventional novel about girls from different sides of the tracks. I found it "thoughtful and sensual and overtly political but (it) didn't rock my boat so much."

Birk Meinhardt: Brüder und Schwestern
Another sweeping panoramic historical debut novel, this time about East Germany. The writing looks fine, what with the author being an award-winning journalist.

David Wagner: Leben
My favourite, obviously. Wagner - with whom I was once going to go out for a walk but it was too cold - writes about a man waiting for an organ donation. I suspect it is masterful. It comes out tomorrow and I will be reading it.

Anna Weidenholzer: Der Winter tut den Fischen gut
Perhaps the most quirky title on this not un-quirky list, this seems to be a novel about oddballs getting through life as best they can in a small town. I'm guessing it's well observed and entertaining, and it's written by a young Austrian. 

Congratulations to all the nominees.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Links Roundup

It's the school holidays. So here's just a brief roundup of stuff.

My sometimes partner-in-crime Amanda DeMarco tells you all about Berlin as a literary borough

Marian Ryan does a similar Slow Travelling thing for live events

Howard Curtis hits the nail on the head in an explanation of what translators do for Guardian readers' kids

Booktrust launches a vox-pop readers' project accompanying the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

And Other Stories' (non-translated but nevertheless fab) writer Deborah Levy reading in Germany

And Other Stories seeking NY-based part-timer to roll out their very exciting new distribution thing in the US

Tim Parks despairs with translation once again

There's probably much more but hey, it's the school holidays.


Saturday 2 February 2013

Schlegel-Tieck Prize to Vincent Kling

As the TLS has announced, this year's Schlegel-Tieck Prize for translation from German goes to Vincent Kling for his rendering of Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by the Romanian-Swiss writer Aglaja Veteranyi. Kling is a professor of German and comparative literature and has translated the Austrian authors Gerd Jonke and Heimito von Doderer to great acclaim, among others. He gets £3,000 - congratulations!

I'm also very pleased that Ross Benjamin has been commended for Thomas Pletzinger's Funeral for a Dog. By the way, Ross has a great interview up at Words Without Borders right now.

Friday 1 February 2013

The N-word: Preussler, Scheck and the New Yorker

I've been trying so, so hard to ignore this debate going on in Germany right now, but when the New Yorker reports it gets too much. Basically, as far as I've followed it, a concerned father of colour wrote to the German children's book publishers Thienemann and asked them to change some of the racist words used in Otfried Preussler's 1950s classic Die kleine Hexe. The publishers passed the letter on to the elderly author, who had apparently resisted making such changes in the past, but who now agreed to the alterations in the next edition.

Cue rather more excitement than I think this is worth. Censorship, some critics called it. And then one prominent critic whom I'd previously admired thought it would be a wheeze to comment on the issue on his TV show. In blackface. Words fail me.

The Germans are still arguing about whether blackfacing is an OK thing to do, after various stage productions embarrassed themselves last year. It's not my area of expertise but for what it's worth: in a globalised world you are going to offend people if you paint yourself black. It's also slightly ridiculous to argue that you're doing so because there aren't enough black actors in Germany. And if you're commenting on racism, it will obscure your argument if you paint yourself black to present it. You will knock yourself off your pedestal as love german books' second-favourite critic, Denis Scheck, if you use cheap and offensive provocation to try and add a note of - what, actually? - satire?

The linguistic aspect is a difficult issue. Many Germans seem far less sensitive to the offensive aspects of the N-word than English-speakers. There is only one word in German - Neger - which translates as both negro and that other thing. I've been having arguments about it for years, because people seem to confuse considerate use of language with that catch-all bad thing, "political correctness". And they seem to confuse freedom of speech with freedom to offend and upset. My least favourite argument is that "it was a perfectly normal term in the GDR and it wasn't offensive at all". That was twenty years ago, and the GDR was far from free from racism.

In my work, I've come across this issue a couple of times. Some German writers use the N-word, presumably innocently, in a way I feel will simply shock when rendered in English. So yes, I have "censored" one of my translations to remove the N-word. The idea being that I want to recreate the original reading experience as closely as possible, and that won't include a big fat unmotivated insult in the middle of the page. Even if it is in a character's voice, even if that character is not likeable or has his or her own reasons to use the word in German. Part of the translator's work is easing a book's path into another culture, and this is one instance of where I've intervened with the original to do that. Obviously, though, we have to look at each instance in its own right, and in historical contexts or when expressly intended as an insult it may well be legitimate to retain the N-word in translation.

So, who has taken up Scheck's crown as love german books' second-favourite critic? Ijoma Mangold, of course, who according to Sally McGrane in the New Yorker and other sources has been calm and rational and cool all the way through. For a view from the other side of the trenches - if you read German - you could also read Noa Ha's response (to the pre-Scheck debate) from the forthcoming Freitext magazine.