Saturday 30 March 2013

Culture Vultures Internet Dating

Here is what I want to exist: an internet dating site for people who read books. As in: a lot of books. Or for people who make art, or write, or make music, or appreciate art and writing and music in a way that has becoming a defining factor in their lives.

It would have a multilingual interface, where you have to enter the languages you speak and the books/art/music you love. Maybe write something about yourself that would illustrate your individuality, wit and intelligence. It would have people in places all over the world, from places all over the world, but a decent number of them would be in Berlin so I would get to go on dates. As in: dates with men who don't think it's crazy to read a lot of books and are not intimidated by women who do so. Who can talk about books but also about other things like favourite ice cream flavours or whatever. In a halfway intelligent manner, you know.

I don't have the time or the technical wherewithal to invent this site, so I've simply come up with a name (see above) in the hope that someone will be inspired. I've never done internet dating but I hear it's quite good if you know what you want. Obviously, I don't.

Monday 25 March 2013

On Admiring Admirable Translations

Today I've been thinking and corresponding about how to admire translations in a learning context. This is partly because I remembered a time when I and a group of fellow translation beginners had weekly meetups, where we would share knowledge about aspects of translation, give each other little talks and workshops, and so on. One of the things I rather relished doing was looking at published literary translations and comparing them with the original. And what we inevitably ended up doing was trashing the translator's work. Now at that time, as I mentioned, none of us had translated a great deal and we were interested in honing our skills. But I was sure I could have done a far better job than the professional literary translator whose work we picked apart. I have no doubt now that that was utter nonsense. Now that I've been working in literary translation for a little while, I'm also finding it more and more difficult to say, This Is A Good Translation - as in of an objectively high standard and fit for all purposes.

I've been planning for a couple of workshops I'll be leading, and talking to creative writing teachers in the process. What I want to do is hijack the creative writing teaching method of admiring great work by other people. I want to do a similar thing to that fun exercise of before, comparing translation and original, only in a positive way. I want to seek out really great translations and kowtow in awe before them. I want to pick up on great solutions to things that plague me in my everyday translation work, I want to celebrate creativity in translation and voice and tone and playfulness and trickery and the all-round magic of an admirable translation.

A couple of people have given me some very useful hints, which I shall just blatantly reproduce here. Charlotte Ryland, who has taught translation at Oxford, told me she asked her students to write an essay comparing two published translations of the same text:
Last year, for example, we set two versions of Musil's Toerless - with one (highly praised by the students of course) by a certain Shaun Whiteside. I really like the exercise, as it's a way of doing an in-depth critical analysis without encouraging students to denigrate or make distinct value judgements (x is good, y is bad, etc.). I've also worked on comparative Tin Drums with them in class, which is fascinating.
And Karen Nölle, who has been holding workshops for German translators for many years, wrote:
I've been doing this for years in my seminars - on the last morning, by which point we've honed our critical skills, we analyse all the things that have been done well in a text - and bow down before good ideas and skills. I find it a very good method for boosting one's own ambition...
My own workshops are never going to be the same as Charlotte's in terms of scope - the people I "teach" are not students but aspiring and emerging practitioners, and I don't feel qualified to teach translation theory. Nor will they match up to Karen's seminars, which usually involve working with experienced literary translators. But I intend to foist the admiration of excellent translations upon my fellow experimenters the no man's land translation lab in Berlin and on participants at the BCLT summer school. Because surely admiring each others' work is key in recognising our profession as a creative one.

If readers have any suggestions for admirable translations, I'd be very grateful for comments.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Eduard Habsburg: Lena in Waldersbach

Georg Büchner's Lenz is a stark piece of writing, a short and disturbing description of the writer JMR Lenz's stay with Pastor Johann Oberlin in a village in the Alsace in 1778. Büchner reworked the pastor's notes into a novella or a fragment - nobody's quite sure - during the 1830s and it was published in 1839, after his death. The text has inspired many. It's remarkably accessible, despite Büchner's generous use of free indirect speech. I wrote about it as an undergraduate - something I'll come back to a little later.

So now Eduard Habsburg has tried his hand at something akin to an homage. His teenage protagonist Lena suddenly turns up in Oberlin's former village of Waldersbach, determined to trace the real Lenz's footsteps for a school essay. She has contacted the modern-day Lutheran pastor and defies her mother to jump on a train and walk the landscapes so important in Büchner's text. Housed in the parsonage where Lenz himself spent time, she explores the mountainous region but is clearly hiding something from her hosts - and from herself.

There is much splashing in cold water, Lenz's preferred therapy for what modern readers have classified as paranoid schizophrenia. There are walks in nature, another helpful activity for the object of her obsession. There's a trip to a local family and a night spent in a stone hut - the hut none of the researchers have found up to now? There's the local family's teenage son and his motorbike and his leather jacket. There are dreams of dead mothers and bears and visions of roses, and there is local folklore. And then there's a storm.

Habsburg opens and closes his short story with Büchner's words, lightly adapted, and his writing is at its strongest when he's imitating the older text. Nature as a force to be reckoned with, but also a saviour. The storm scene works well, up to the point when falling trees are described as giants. However, when he's writing about Lena's everyday life rather than her confusion, Habsburg rarely rises above banal adult-describes-teenager prose. And a tender love story is all well and good, but certainly not what I'd expect someone to make out of such a strong original. I have more complaints but I don't want to go into them in any great detail.

One key aspect though is the theme of madness in both texts. Büchner was writing before mental illness was classified into separate disorders, but I believe it was beginning to be seen as an illness as such. I would know more about this, had I followed my professor's instructions and read Foucault's Madness and Civilization in concurrence with Lenz. Unfortunately, I thought I was very big and clever and would apply my own ideas to the subject he set me for an essay: Madness and Sanity in Georg Büchner's Lenz. Re-reading my tattered Reclam edition (as Lena does incessantly, a nice touch played upon in the rather good cover design), I see from my pencilled notes that Büchner portrayed madness as being accepted in certain circumstances, even admired, in fact. That stone hut that Lena finds, for instance, is home to a motley band of crazed individuals who spend all night chanting and praying, but the man of the household is widely respected as a kind of healer. I presume this is the overlap with Foucault.

We also read, in a different course, Peter Schneider's 1973 text by the name of Lenz. Refreshing my memory with an improved understanding of left-wing politics in West Germany, I read it as an anti-psychiatry text and was rather surprised by that. And I admired the way Schneider made West Berlin his backdrop for Lenz to wander against - which made me wonder whether Lenz is one of fiction's first flaneurs, walking around mountains rather than streets. Unlike Büchner, who knew what was going to happen to the real-life Lenz after the period he described, Schneider seems to give his own Lenz a rather upbeat send-off on the final page.

Which is something Habsburg does too, and yet in Lena in Waldersbach I found that optimism merely twee. The explanations of Lena's mental illness, which Habsburg gives her - and us - towards the end, took a great deal away from Büchner's original for me. A modern-day stamp of simple diagnosis, plus a pharmaceutical solution, plus a backstory explaining what has happened to the poor girl - I felt rather patronised.

While I am fascinated by the idea of writers riffing off other writers' books - like high-level fan fiction, perhaps - I think I often find the end product disappointing. I had a similar experience with Teju Cole, whose book shouted "modern-day Sebald" at me almost all the way through, although it did reward me in the end. In this case, tackling such an incredible piece of writing as Büchner's Lenz is a tall order for any writer - one that Habsburg fails to deliver.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Wednesday 20 March 2013

The One Thing I Actually Did in Leipzig

I seem to know a lot of lovely translators who maintain blogs nowadays. Another friend, Jamie Lee Searle, writes at And she brightened up my short stay in Leipzig and has written much more about it than I managed, which you ought to read.

Anyway, her post has prompted me to say a little something after all about one of the events we attended together, a discussion on the future of the book. Yes, I am a sucker for punishment. I'd been drawing a tactful veil of silence over it to be honest. But now I think, why not just let it all out in one big therapeutic rant. Jamie's given it the polite treatment, so now I can vent.

First of all, the format. An hour and a half! With seven people on the panel! And one of them was a famous American who attracted an adoring audience, which meant they had to cart along extra chairs and there were still people standing at the back. And then despite the event having a rather cute title - The Perfect Reading Machine - all that happened was that two people defended print books to the hilt, two people defended ebooks with a little less enthusiasm, and two people sat on the fence. What made me want to vomit the most was the way the reactionaries got peals of applause every time they mentioned workmanship, binding methods or typefaces. What made me want to vomit second-most was that almost everyone on the panel assumed that everybody who reads books is equipped with unlimited wealth and space for building up enormous libraries.

There was one golden moment, when poetry publishing empress Daniela Seel questioned the whole notion of reading for understanding - we'd been told that students reading on computers were distracted and therefore comprehended less - by asking: What is understanding in the first place? But nobody picked up her thread to crochet a more imaginative future for readers. And nor did the genuine argument that seemed to be brewing between Seel and the reactionaries ever break out into full-blown mud wrestling. Jamie and I started shuffling in our seats after an hour or so and I encouraged her to join me in walking out extra specially loudly in our clacky analogue high heeled boots. I felt like Nancy Sinatra. It was good.

Of course, having mouthed off loudly outside about paper fetishists, I did blow a hole in my budget the next day on a 1966 edition of Ernst Jandl poems on deckle-edged handmade paper. I shall add it to my infinite library as a reminder not to go to any more discussions on the future of the book, unless they involve real mud.

On International Author-Translator Relations

My friend and fellow translator Cristina Vezzaro has a shiny new blog, called She was rather tired of translators rarely being acknowledged in reviews and so on, and so she devised a questionnaire to put to authors. It turns out that some writers are all too happy to talk about their work with translators.

The blog seems to be in several different languages. If you'd like to submit an author interview, go to the blog for a contact address. And here are the questions in English:

Have any of your books been translated? If so, into which languages?

Have you had an opportunity to meet your translator personally or make contact with him or her?

How did the meeting or the contact go?

Is it difficult for you to entrust your literary work to a translator, or do you trust them blindly?

Have you ever heard someone reading extracts from your books in another language? What was your reaction?

Do you feel you can assess the quality of a translation?

What languages would you most like to see your books translated into, and why?

What's the first thing that occurs to you when you think of the profession of literary translator?

Go ahead! Jump on the authors-translators bandwagon! It's a bit of a win-win situation all round actually, with free publicity for writers and translators. What an excellent idea.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Richter, Brandt, Flensburger, Tempranillo

I have been out drinking with German writers again, this time Nikola Richter and Jan Brandt, possibly predictably so. I'm going out drinking with another German writer tomorrow, and then I shall give myself a rest.

Monday 18 March 2013

What (German)(Indie) Publishers Do (and German Wine)

The lovely people at Mairisch Verlag have a blog, which is in German. And they've now started a regular feature about what publishers do. The first episode is about manuscripts and editing - why they don't take unsolicited manuscripts any more, what writers can do instead, and what their work as editors entails. Fun.

Also, if you have £80 to spare and live in London - and let's face it, you can probably only afford to live in London if you're the kind of person with £80 to spare - and you like wine, why not sign up for a course on German wines at the Goethe Institut? Apparently you get to take the glasses home with you - but the wine itself you have to transport inside your stomach, I suspect.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Drinking with Francis Nenik

I have started a new blog project, a little sideline. It's called Going Dutch with German writers. Basically, it's a transparent attempt to jazz up my social life by going out drinking with German writers. Anyway, one reason why I didn't go to certain parties in Leipzig was because I was out drinking with Francis Nenik. I have a few more dates lined up in March and April, so watch this space.

Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair to David Wagner

I'm back from Leipzig with the not quite fresh news that yes, my favourite book of the season did in fact win the big prize of the season. David Wagner's Leben is king of the German-language fiction castle, and deservedly so. Read my review here to find out what's so amazing about it.

The non-fiction prize went to Helmut Böttiger for Die Gruppe 47, apparently the first serious look back at the Gruppe 47 literary mafia and how its players shaped the German-language literary bizz. And Eva Hesse won the translation prize for her rendering of Ezra Pounds's Cantos. Congratulations!

I don't have much else to report from the book fair. For some reason I didn't go to any parties at all. It was most odd.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Leipzig Book Fair

I shall be away at the Leipzig Book Fair for a couple of days. It is always good. This year, allow me to recommend you catch some of the following, should you be attending:

Jacinta Nandi and Jakob Hein promoting their amusing new book, Fish'n'Chips & Spreewaldgurken - in which a Londoner imagines what East Berlin must have been like and an East Berliner imagines what London must have been like. Guffaws galore, various times and venues.

Benjamin Stein and his translator Brian Zumhagen talking about Die Leinwand/The Canvas, I hope, rather than the less interesting topic of German-Israeli identities as billed. Interlingual fun, Thursday 2 p.m.

A big old panel on the future of the book featuring German and American publishing people, hidden away in the depths of the fair, also Thursday at 2.

David Wagner reading from Leben - they've called it "Life" in English but really it ought to be called "Lives" because the name comes from a bit of a Freudian spelling mistake, but anyway this is the book I want to win the big prize. Sad, dull, happy, exciting, exhilarating prose, various times and venues.

The big awards ceremony, Thursday at 4.

The Lange Leipziger Lesenacht with all the sexy people in a conglomeration of darkened rooms, Thursday night.

A panel of international translators trying to look on the bright side, Friday 11 a.m.

The Party der Jungen Verlage, the same as LLL above but without the readings, Friday night.

The fabtastic Deborah Levy presenting the German version of her novel Swimming Home, Saturday 11 a.m.

Various Irish writers on Saint Patrick's Day, Sunday 2 p.m.

Enjoy. I intend to.

Young Translators: Flock to Berlin

You may recall that the SAND journal staged a translation competition for under-thirties, with the winners being flown in to Berlin for a weekend workshop in April. And now you too, other translators into English under the age of thirty, can sign up but pay your own way. The events themselves are free, however. To download the rather colourful programme and application details, go here. Presumably the snow will have melted by the time you get here.

Monday 11 March 2013

Alexander Kluge: Die Entsprechung einer Oase

I feel a little uncomfortable writing about Alexander Kluge because I feel a little ignorant about his work. This results from an unfortunate combination of various factors: limited reading time in general, my concentration on younger writers and my irrational avoidance of older men's work (Kluge is in his early eighties). Under normal circumstances I can hide the gaps in my reading behind bluff and bravado, but now I've had a tiny taste of Kluge and find myself craving more.

The taster in question was Die Entsprechung einer Oase, subtitled "essay for the digital generation". Being aimed at the digital generation, it is only available digitally, from my friend Nikola Richter's new publishing venture mikrotext. It is also short, weighing in at 17 pages on my Sony reader or about 50 on a smartphone. I was quite intrigued by how it came about - according to Nikola, it began as an thirty-minute telephone conversation; a very enjoyable one by her account. She told me:
He didn't want to give any advice but he began thinking about his relationship to the younger generation, about the conditions of cultural production and creative activity, about reading on the net - and I just let him talk.
Nikola transcribed and edited what he said - apparently his ideas were pretty much printable the instant he expressed them - and obviously they sent the resulting essay to and fro a couple of times, added quotes, and so on. I'm terribly impressed by the process, by what he had to say and by the man himself. I think I can say he's a writer, a filmmaker, a critical theorist and a pioneer of intelligent private television production in Germany. I don't feel that sums it up adequately - it's particularly the combination of those creative and intellectual activities that makes him the kind of iconic figure my youthful iconoclasm made me ignore in the past. 

The young generation, he says, doesn't need his advice. But he looks to the younger generation to reflect on his own ideas. Kluge talks about the internet with its overwhelming wealth of information and our need to find personal oases within it, places of calm and sustenance dealing with things that interest us subjectively as individuals. He reflects on how the internet has broadened our opportunities for reading and the way in which we can write, both in terms of finding things we want to read and adding things to writing that might have seemed outlandish twenty years ago:
One never previously saw this presence of languages. I can risk writing twenty lines of Latin in a text – and I'm suddenly independent, I have a little independent fortress Memor esto sacerdotalis dignitatis linguam caelestis esse clavem imperii et clarissimam Christi tubam. Quapropter ne sileas, netaceas, ne formides loqui. This Latin has extisted for more than 2000 years. (...) Now I can add something like this in a literary context because young people have become more accustomed to unfamiliar elements in the midst of texts. They're not always instantly amazed to find something new, something they don't immediately understand. They're more tolerant in that respect.
He talks subjectively about intellectual property and the way we can watch opinion forming and crystallising via internet debate, about the unfairness of distribution models, about creative acts. Setting up a publishing house, a band, a gallery - or a website - he says, means creating an oasis, collecting individual voices to make creative statements as a small group rather than as individuals. 

Two things impressed me for the main part. They may both be related to Kluge's age. Firstly, while the essay isn't quite perfectly formed, it flows and returns to certain key points and is coherent. The author uses a variety of metaphors - oases, islands, boats, coral riffs - to get his point across in a poetic rather than informative manner; a distinction he makes himself. Fully formed ideas dictated down the phone, surely a dying art. And secondly, Kluge represents all sorts of ideas one might not expect from the older generation in Germany, particularly on the subject of intellectual property rights - an issue that often seems to split society in two by age. He never seems to want to get down with the kids, is never patronising, but shows so much respect for the new that I instantly felt I owed that same respect back to him.

Some of his work is available in English from New Directions and Seagull Books, translated mainly by the excellent Martin Chalmers. I'm told his Air Raid should also be out later this year from Seagull. This particular essay is a strong start for a new publishing house - I hope, a defining moment that will go on to establish respect and success for mikrotext.

Thursday 7 March 2013

How to Learn to Write?

There is a great deal of scepticism in Germany about creative writing schools and courses. Two universities offer highly respected degree courses, but older writers and critics are often very rude about their graduates. I suspect they're envious. There are of course plenty of the "release your inner novel"-type correspondence courses that advertise on the back pages of magazines, although I know nothing about them whatsoever.

But what I'm noticing now is a number of shorter courses taught by bigger-name writers and professionals. There's the Schreibschule am Meer where a friend of mine teaches crime writing. They also offer a week combining sailing and writing, not something I'd want to do at the same time. Oddly they don't offer translation courses even though Paulina Schulz, who runs the school, is an experienced translator. Perhaps fewer people are interested in joining the glamorous world of translation.

And now publishers are setting up their own courses. I think it probably started with Ullstein Open House, a one-day extravaganza of their top-selling writers talking about/teaching about their work for a smallish fee. Now there's the Bastei-Lübbe Academy, complete with the tagline "This is where your story starts..." They seem to be offering courses lasting several days on all sorts of subjects, taught by writers and editors of historical fiction, paranormal love stories, thrillers, fantasy, TV scripts, and all manner of other genre stuff. Deutschlandradio has an interview with one of the authors involved, Mario Giordano, asking that rather tired question of whether writing can be taught but also some other more interesting things.

Would you like my two cents? I think one of the reasons why creative writing courses aren't as widespread in Germany as in the English-speaking world is that authors here have other ways of making a living than teaching. To wit: public funding via grants, and high reading fees. Having begun to lead translation workshops myself, I know that this kind of teaching is hard work. I get a huge amount out of it for my own work and I enjoy it a great deal but it's tiring. It requires preparation and your full attention for several days at a time. Whereas reading aloud from the same book - very possibly the same passage - and then answering possibly vacuous questions a number of times over in different places is arguably less strenuous. Having said that, I suspect there's some demand for these types of courses. Whether they're any good I can't possibly judge - but it makes sense to me to take a course with someone who's published several erotic novels, for instance, if you want to go in that direction yourself. And yes, of course you can teach creative writing. But it's probably just like teaching mathematics - there are some students (and some teachers) who are going to end up doing better than others.

All this is kind of building up to me telling you about a course in London, Peirene Press's Masterclass on the art of the novella. Meike Ziervogel's rapidly expanding European novella empire is now branching out into teaching creative writing. You have to read three of their excellent novellas, including FC Delius's outstanding Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, and then spend the weekend doing the workshop with tutor Shelley Weiner. I love the way there's no apologising for the fact that these books are translated - they're positive examples of good writing, full stop. Now I wonder whether one of the translators might be involved in future masterclasses...

Tuesday 5 March 2013

BTBA Longlist / Four Point Five Percent

First of all, the fiction longlist for the Best Translated Book Award has been announced - and includes four books translated from German:

Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean M. Snook (Dalkey Archive Press; Austria)

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Metropolitan Books; Romania)

Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated from the German by Donald O. White (Overlook; Germany)

My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books; Switzerland)

My fingers are crossed quite hard, although not equally for all four.

And then, speaking of Three Percent, Literature Across Frontiers has published a report on translation statistics in the UK and Ireland. At last, someone's done a study - and come up with some figures. According to LAF, translations constitute 2.5% of published titles (all literary genres including biography, literary criticism and others) and 4.5% of published literary titles (fiction, poetry and drama) in the UK and Ireland. German was the second-most translated language in the years under review (after French and before Spanish). The study used data from the British Library, which is more reliable than the Index Translationum for various reasons, as the author reports.

I've oversimplified. The two categories in particular are more complicated and especially interesting for anyone who's worked in a library with the Dewey Decimal system - oh those 800s! The main part of the study is only 28 pages long and well worth a read - especially for publishers. There are some great appendices too including useful resources - a list of publishers who do translations, for instance. Here's my favourite quote:
As previous reports have shown, the status of the translators themselves is precarious in the UK, with reviewers, for example, sometimes even failing to mention that the work is a translation, and failing to name the translator. Publishers play the most important role in raising the profile of translators and translation – and in this apparently small matter, they can make a significant difference.
The small matter is providing the industry with detailed data, but obviously publishers can and do make all sorts of significant differences.

Monday 4 March 2013

Buber-Rosenzweig Medal to Mirjam Pressler

Yesterday the German writer and translator Mirjam Pressler was awarded the Buber-Rosenzweig medal, which honours individuals or institutions that contribute to Christian-Jewish understanding. She has written a million trillion books for children and young people, none of which I have read apart from Die schönsten Erstlesegeschichten, which was kind of dull but that's a pretty common phenomenon in the world of first readers. A lot of her writing focuses on outsiders and particularly on Jewish children. A couple of her novels have made it into English too but seem to be out of print apart from Halinka (trans. Elizabeth D. Crawford). What you can still get hold of easily, however, is Treasures from the Attic, a non-fiction book about Anne Frank and her family. 

Pressler is quite an expert on Anne Frank. She learned Dutch so as to translate into German, and did in fact edit and re-translate the "definitive edition" of the diary. She also translates from Hebrew, including Zeruya Shalev. She's won all the prizes going for young adults' writing and I'd say she's one of the most highly respected children's writers Germany has. You can read a neat little English interview with her on the Deutsche Welle website.