Tuesday 30 April 2013

Helen and Kurt Wolff Translators' Prize to Philip Boehm

As the Goethe Institut announced a while ago (and I only just noticed on one of my regular (but obviously not regular enough) trawls through the Literary Saloon), this year's prestigious Helen and Kurt Wolff Translators' Prize for translations from German to English published in the USA has gone to Philip Boehm for Gregor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol. I met Philip, a multilingual theatre director in St Louis, a year or so ago, so I'm very pleased to see him win this award.

Honorable Mention goes to Donald O. White for his translation of A.V. Thelen’s novel The Island of Second Sight. As far as I'm aware, it's White's untiring efforts we have to thank for being able to read this book in English in the first place.

Congratulations to both!

Monday 29 April 2013

Introducing Readux Books

My lovely friend Amanda DeMarco is an awe-inspiring person. Not only has she very recently introduced me to bourbon, she's also just announced she's launching a publishing house, Readux Books. Come October you'll be able to read the first four teeny books (small format, 32–64 pp.) either in beautiful print editions or electronically. And most of them will be translations! Including from German!

I'm very excited indeed about this. I actually know what most of the books will be but I don't think I'm supposed to tell you. What I'm sure I am allowed to say is that they're going to be fantastic and you'll be licking your literary lips at the very thought of them. I know I am.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Nerd Chic: E-Readers of Yesteryear

The optician's down the road has a pair of spectacles in the display window, unironically labelled "nerd glasses". Those big black ones, you know. I saw a woman at the supermarket with a Daunt Books tote bag yesterday. And I recently overheard some Americans on Facebook, discussing a haircut spotted in a local bar which they described as "Dorothy Hammill hair". This, people, is Berlin. The place where you can be yourself and let it all hang out; where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came; the place where you can see our troubles are all the same. Or was that somewhere else?

No matter. Berlin is big on nerd chic, in a non-threatening way. It's OK to flaunt your slightly odd passions here. So when I read Hannah Johnson's sweet piece at Publishing Perspectives about loving her dinosaur-style Kindle, I thought, Yes! So what if everyone else has a flashy tablet? Our e-readers don't reflect! So what if they can check their emails and skype while reading? Our e-readers don't distract us! You may recall, also, my scientific experiment establishing that e-readers won't get us laid either. Hooray! Who wants to be diverted from their reading material by public-transport pick-up artists?

I've now decided that e-readers of yesteryear are the ultimate nerd accessory. You know how everyone was wearing digital watches last year or whenever? Forget it. An e-reader is better, because it won't annoy you by beeping or actually telling the time (if you have the same model as I do, at least). They're so out they're in. So make like your mum and dig yours out of the closet again - because every fashion comes around twice you know.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

German Children's and Young Adults' Literature Prize to Translated Works?

The Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis is Germany's big prize for picture books, children's books, YA books and children's/YA non-fiction books. Most of the biggies have won it over the years, including two of my friends. The unusual thing about it is that it can be awarded to books written originally in German or published in translation, all within a particular year. There has been some annoyance about that on the part of some German writers of children's and young adults' literature. In fact they went as far as to write an open letter to the family minister calling for an end to the practice (original formatting):
An alteration to the award guidelines for the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis is indispensible and overdue in the following two points:
1)      The evaluation by the critics' and young people's juries should apply to  German-language original works in the categories picture book, children's book, young adults' book and non-fiction.
2)      German translations of foreign-language works should be honoured  separately, i.e. in their own category/categories.
After almost sixty years of the award's existence, may German-language children's and young adults' literature finally be adequately acknowledged and valued by the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, as other countries deal with their own literary production.
In case you're wondering why they wrote to the family minister, it's because her ministry is officially in charge of the prize.

Anyway, the open letter did the rounds of the social media, making me feel a little uncomfortable but not enough to keep me up at night. And then today the German literary translators issued a response in a press release containing a long and combative statement by Heike Brandt. Unfortunately, you're going to have to click the link above and then go to "Pressemitteilungen" to get there. I do apologise. A soundbite from the VDÜ's chairman Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel to make up for it:
It is good and important that the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis covers the entire range of children's and young adults' literature published in Germany, originals and translations into German. A national limitation of the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreises would be an untimely and fatal signal. Setting up a prize category for translations would not balance that out.
Now you can imagine I'm torn. On the one hand, I want my German writer friends to win prizes for their books. On the other hand I want my German translator friends to win prizes for their books - on a par with all the other books. Because that's precisely what makes this award special: the fact that it's a prize for all children's and young adult's books and doesn't make a false distinction between books written in German and books written in Swedish, English or Hebrew. The upset authors claim it's not a level playing field, however, because translated books have had longer to establish themselves on the market (abroad) and gain attention. They say it's more difficult for books written by German authors to win the prize. I'm not sure about that. A brief glance at the previous winners shows it's a fairly even distribution. In fact in 2011 no translated books won anything, although last year was back to half and half. I suspect this year's nominations might be the straw that broke the camel's back, with only three originals in the running for any of the critics' fiction prizes.

Nevertheless I shall come down from the fence and say that yes, I think it's marvellous that this award treats originals and translations as exactly the same things: great books. On the anecdotal level, my daughter reads German originals, German translations and English originals of all her confusing YA fantasy series, depending on what she gets her hands on. And to back that up, there's the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis young people's jury, who fairly consistently nominate a mix of translated and original titles. I think Germany could be proud not to make a distinction like all those other countries with their narrow-minded national book awards. But then of course I could just be saying that because I'm a translator.

Update: As the very clever writer, translator and YA-lit expert Danny Hahn pointed out, this is exactly how the Dublin IMPAC prize works, and is something to be applauded. And as with the IMPAC prize, the award money either goes to the writer (of a German-language original) or is shared equally between the writer and translator.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Ides of May

Today is World Book Day, which I have to admit I find a bit crap. At least in Germany, where there aren't really any free books involved. Surely all those "Yay for books" things are preaching to the converted? Whatever. Books. Yay. Let's spread the tidings of this radical new invention today.

Enough. There are some things to look forward to with a little more content, in all sorts of places. First up, the PEN World Voices festival in NYC. Austrian poetry and prose writer Barbara Frischmuth, German Book Prize winner Ursula Krechel, Swiss geezer Rolf Lappert, and all sorts of other impressive people and things from 29 April to 5 May.

From 10-12 May there's the Solothurner Literaturtage in Switzerland, where you lucky people can see me on a panel, single-handedly and hypocritically championing online reviewers. But also some proper writers, including Jenny Erpenbeck, Navid Kermani, Julya Rabinowich, Andreas Stichmann, Urs Widmer, Patrick Tschan... plus lots of translators translating live. I'm quite pleased I don't actually have to do that part.

Followed by London's European Literature Night on 15 May. Featuring Austrian writer Norbert Gstrein for your tongue-twisting delight, Germany's Birgit Vanderbeke and a host of other golden daffodils. All chaired by Rosie Goldsmith, someone I look up to immensely – and not just for her dress sense.

And if you're grounded in Berlin because it's so darn cool you can't bear to leave (I feel for you), then you can look forward to a thing called 24 Stunden Buch on 31 May and 1 June. I may be missing something but there doesn't seem to be a programme just yet. But they do tell us that (pardon my shouting): "from 12:00 to 12:00 there will be readings and other literary events around the clock, some of them in very unusual places, for children and adults. A bus transfer will link the reading locations during the evening and the night so that visitors can enjoy literature non-stop!" Now aren't you all fired up now?

Update: Argh! I just looked up World Book Night in the UK. It is not for me. Possibly in an attempt to make the list of books they give away more fitting for the event's name, they have added a translated book. Bernhard Schlink's lowest-common-denominator The Reader. Thank goodness I left the country. Yes, I know I'm a snob. 

Thursday 18 April 2013

London Book Fair Fun

The London Book Fair just finished and thousands of publishing people put their hands to their shrunken wallets in relief. Phew! Now we can go back to paying less than £3.50 for a small Coke. The highlight was obviously the Literary Translation Centre, where the events came thick and fast and there was free cake at lunchtime. The downside was that there were so many great people there that it was hard to concentrate. 

I was duly inspired by a panel on promoting literature in translation - hell, why not suggest events to bookshops? I think I will. Susan Bernofsky, Rosie Goldsmith and Katrin Thomaneck had all sorts of other ideas that are still swishing around my head. I left after the beginning of the panel on What Publishers Want - because I decided I'd rather not know what publishers want. And I enjoyed the panel on innovations in literary translation, including some information on TL hub, an online tool for collaborative translations. It's free and sounded fairly flexible - if only I had a project to use it for. 

Oddly, that particular event highlighted one of the difficulties of the Literary Translation Centre. It's part-sponsored by Amazon, who are making waves with their Amazon Crossing programme. Now Amazon is not all that popular at the moment so I can understand people in the audience raising issues with their editor during the Q&A. Certainly, talk of improving efficiency by speeding up the translation process sounded rather worrying, although it seemed to refer to the publisher's end rather than the translator's. And another point that wasn't answered was how translators can make measured decisions on whether to sign up for royalty-heavy deals if sales information is not provided. But I don't know whether one person from a huge corporation can be held to account for their tax payment practice, for example. I picked up a general sense of unease from many in the audience, while others were quick to leap to Amazon's defence. For me, it boils down to this: we can choose who we work for so if we don't like the conditions a large corporation offers we don't have to take them. Particularly in the case of Amazon, who invite people to "audition" for translations on a special platform rather than approaching them directly. Unfortunately, the centre itself doesn't seem to be bombarded with sponsorship offers. I'm glad it exists and I hope it continues to do so in future. I just wish we lived in a world where something as wonderful as the Literary Translation Centre could thrive without corporate sponsorship - because then there'd be more opportunity for open discussions on subjects like this without anyone getting scared. 

The centre's other problem is that it's just too small and was constantly bursting at the seams. Presumably this issue can't be addressed until Bombay Sapphire offers to take over as sponsor.

What else happened? I moderated Clemens J. Setz at the Austrian Embassy, which was plush but had the world's smallest snacks. Clemens J. Setz was fantastic and entertaining and puzzling and very easy to moderate, requiring only a quick prod now and then to send him off into the next interesting reverie. Serpent's Tail will be publishing Indigo in Ross Benjamin's translation next year. Clemens read some of it and it was truly beautiful. There's a picture at Lizzy's Literary Life showing me looking bemused in my magical confidence dress. Lizzy was lovely and very glittery around the bottom half. There was some schmoozing over wine and miniscule snacks. Frisch & Co launched with a party I couldn't attend, but I hear it was very good. I also talked on a panel about how to become a literary translator, which was short but sweet. Organiser Danny Hahn very kindly announced - at the end, mercifully - that it was my birthday, at which point I was showered with wishes and even one impromptu gift from the obligatory strange person. I met lots of passionate people and got leaned on by a publisher with a different measure of personal space to my own. I saw a lovely baby bump that made me very happy. And I had a birthday G&T slightly too early in the afternoon, with one of the first people to put faith in me as a translator. 

To round off, all this talk of birthdays may make me sound like a bit of a masochist. Who'd voluntarily fly to a book fair for their birthday? Two answers: firstly, it felt rather wonderful to have "arrived" to such an extent as to be invited onto a panel, which is a good feeling to have on a special date. And secondly, don't forget that London is where my family lives, so it wasn't like I was going back to a lonely hotel room and a chocolate cupcake. Also, I genuinely enjoy book fairs, at least up until the tipping point from which I loathe them.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Michael Krüger on Translations in the USA

Michael Krüger is the publisher at Hanser Verlag, probably one of Germany's most serious publishing houses. He's about to retire (at 70) and he's one of those people men I see as representing a bygone age in the book world. That has its pros and cons, I'll admit. I get a sense that he and his generation took literature very seriously indeed and were loathe to publish anything they might have considered trashy. Profit was not the only thing they had in mind. At the same time, publishing was more of a closed shop and not terribly open to women. I remember Krüger's protests that Elisabeth Ruge couldn't possibly take over from him - because she has children.

Krüger occasionally sits down at his desk and talks to a camera. The resulting video is available on Hanser's new-fangled youtube channel. I rarely watch these talking-head videos of his because I feel uncomfortable about the apparently authoritative nature of his pronouncements. It's like this, he tells us, and I'm the man who's telling you it. Again, I think this is a common phenomenon among men of his generation, let's say. But anyway, this time he talks about the woeful lack of translations in the USA and how all German writers want to get their books translated into English but nobody wants to publish them. In case you like that kind of thing. It's interesting as an insight into how a German publisher sees the American publishing world, although you might not feel terribly cheerful after watching it.

More Translator Interviews

Watch out! There's a sudden fever for interviewing translators. Seems like people have decided we are interesting after all. I'm pleased - this is one of the things I think blogs are excellent at, casting a light on subjects that have otherwise been considered too niche to bother with.

Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy's Literary Life (no stranger to translator interviews and one of the bloggers holding international literature high in the UK) has an interview with Donal McLaughlin, shortlisted no less for the BTBA. Lizzy knows Donal, and I know Donal too. He's a man with a huge amount of enthusiasm and talent, always willing to help out and also always dashing about the world.

And JC Sutcliffe has just launched a whole bunch of interviews with translators - as part of her "Three Rs" series, in which she's interviewed a huge number of writers about their work. JC is a translator herself and often looks at translated literature on her blog Slightly Bookist. The first interview is with me

And Lisa Carter at Intralingo has started a regular feature casting an, erm, Spotlight on... - interviewing literary translators, so far Lucas Klein (Chinese), Lydia Razran Stone (Russian) and C.M. Mayo (Spanish).

Not to forget Cristina Vezzaro's awesome new site Authors & Translators.

Perhaps because the sun is sort of shining and I'm planning a shopping spree, I've decided to view this development as a symptom of burgeoning interest in translated writing in general and growing respect for translators' work - along with some very cool literary magazine projects and a smattering of new small publishers emerging right now. More on that another time. Also, of course, it's a sign that translators are promoting each other and perhaps realising that people might be interested in what we have to say. Hooray.

Friday 12 April 2013

Warehouse Fire Burns Books

If you walk into a German bookstore looking for a particular book and they don't have it, they can order it for you and it'll be there the next day. Any German book. This is something that surprises people in other countries. It's because the Germans are ruthlessly efficient, obviously. But also because there's a system of very large distributors. One of them is the Leipzig-based LKG. They provide distribution and warehousing services for a hell of a lot of independent publishers.

Unfortunately, there's been a fire at one of their warehouses. No one knows yet how many books burned, but estimates put it at 18,000 pallets and a million euro. It took the fire brigade 17 hours to extinguish the fire. It looks like not all the publishers were directly insured - bad news.

Thursday 11 April 2013

BTBA Shortlists

Three books translated from German have made the fiction and poetry shortlists for the Best Translated Book Award:

Elfriede Czurda: Almost 1 Book, Almost 1 Life, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop

Herta Müller: The Hunger Angel, trans. Philip Boehm

Urs Widmer: My Father's Book, trans. Donal McLaughlin


None on the Impac Prize or the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlists, but hey. Lots of other good books out there.

More Drinking... with Olga Grjasnowa

I went out drinking with fabulous German writer Olga Grjasnowa. It was good.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Clemens J. Setz: Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes

Clemens J. Setz, in case you didn't know, is a young Austrian writer much feted by the literary establishment. I was sceptical about his second novel Die Frequenzen, mainly because the extract I read was peppered with adjectives. I gave up on his third novel Indigo for various reasons that didn't include the writing itself, but I'm going to start again now. Because I've just read his in-between book, the short story collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes, which won the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in 2011.

I've been reading Austrian short stories, specifically the anthology edited by Martin Chalmers, Beneath Black Stars. Now it's hard to generalise and perhaps it's just Martin's taste, but a good few of these stories from post-war to Austria are a tad strange. Falling in love with a sheep, random-ish capitals or none at all, social commentary via lists of dishes cooked and mainly thrown away, writing on the margins of sense like Sabine Scholl's "Sex - The Other Homeland" (trans. Martin Chalmers):
And trousers of leather and a yellow glance and a skirt, a dress and a yellow glance, just pretend, in front of the horses, while all the rest moved off, the search for a woman. In trousers the feel of leather and the hand on the clay, breasts, just pretend and tend horses, living in a steel moon.
Much of this is not for those who like their reading smooth. And then there is Alois Hotschnig, whose translator Tess Lewis I interviewed here: another one for bizarre and rather scary developments. Kathrin Röggla does some fairly radical things in prose and drama. Or there's my favourite Austrian writer Verena Rossbacher, whose work is odd in the very best way. Even one I'm not quite as keen on, Thomas Glavinic, does strange things like imagining everyone's disappeared or writing a novel about a writer called Thomas Glavinic. Alright, there are more commercial Austrian writers such as Daniel Kehlmann, Eva Menasse and Daniel Glattauer. But I'm gradually getting a picture - without even glancing in Jelinek's direction or even thinking seriously about Jandl and poetry in general - of a literary line that's proud to be a little different. Martin Chalmers argues in his foreword that many Austrian writers felt a pressing need to rebel against a society that refused to acknowledge its own guilt over fascism. I don't know whether that need still exists today, or whether there are other driving forces behind the envelope-pushing in terms of style and content. But I sense it's still prevalent.

I once saw Clemens Setz being interviewed, and I remember he was asked about whether there was any pressure on him because he comes from Graz, which was a centre of literary rebellion and experimentation in the 60s and 70s. I suspect the idea behind the question was that the city now has a certain literary reputation to protect.

I can't say whether Clemens Setz feels obliged to that tradition, not remembering his answer. But I can say one thing: his short stories are out of the ordinary. His stories are disturbing, much more so than Hotschnig's, which I already found disturbing. Nothing quite impossible happens apart from in one of the weaker stories. It's more that people manipulate each other in disturbing ways, which then escalates until it becomes rather revolting. Or reality is slightly different: mothers for hire by the hour on dark street-corners. Or there's a museum to a writer that's more than a little out of the ordinary. Actually, you can read that particular story in English, translated by Bradley Schmidt, in no man's land issue 7. You ought to. It's one of the less disturbing pieces. It's still disturbing.

There are ideas wrapped up in these stories, ideas about how people perceive the world. There are characters with shifted morals or whose morals shift during the course of the stories. Sometimes I caught a whiff of gender theory: some of the male characters are exaggeratedly male, acting out clichéd men's roles (the lecturer, the boss, the inventor, the torturer), and some of the women are so stereotypically female that I felt it couldn't be coincidence in such clever writing. But that was one of the more subtle elements, overlaid perhaps by the overwhelming sense of oddity. The form, too, is often unusual. I enjoyed the portrait of a fictional computer-game inventor complete with footnotes referencing fictional books by or about him published by real American publishers. I can see now that the frequency of adjectives in Clemens J. Setz's second novel is an irrelevant factor for judging the quality of his writing.

What Setz doesn't do here to any major extent - or is it just very subtle? - is berate Austrian society, in that way one might expect after reading Beneath Black Stars, at least. Most of the stories could be set almost anywhere in Europe; or perhaps in any predominantly Catholic country in a couple of cases. The world they portray is made up of individuals, often isolated emotionally or physically. It's not a society in the way we traditionally understand it. In fact I found it more like Margaret Thatcher's take on the way the world works:
And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.
Perhaps that was the most disturbing thing about the book. It's very good.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Some lovely links: NBG, US/UK Translators, Me

Some lovely links for your delectation:

A gorgeous new yellow springtime issue of New Books in German, featuring 29 new titles, some fascinating articles about Vienna and Austrian publishing, a great interview with translator Shaun Whiteside, and if you look carefully a list of newly translated and upcoming German-language books in English.

An interesting piece in Publishing Perspectives, in which top translator and BCLT person Daniel Hahn talks about differences for translators working in the UK and the US.

An interview with me at Authors & Translators. Thanks to the delightful Cristina Vezzaro for that.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

German Chainstores and Indies and Dialogue

Nothing is happening in the world of German books. It's freezing cold here and everyone's brains have died over Easter. So I've dredged the German-speaking internet for something to recycle. Here's the vaguely amusing thing I've found:

An MDR exposé on bookstore chains that "recommend" books of the month. Complete with irate former bookseller, angry publishing rep and polite letters from bookstore chains. The hot news: publishers pay to have their book chosen as book of the month. And bestseller lists vary wildly.

It's still the school holidays and today we happened to go into three different bookstores in Berlin. One was a chain. My daughter loved it. If there's one thing the German chains do well it's keeping a large variety of teen fantasy fiction in stock. Which is great, if that's what you're into, and a lot of people are. I, however, felt patronised to find books I've enjoyed piled up on a messy table labelled "young & crazy".  

In the other two shops they knew exactly what I wanted and had it in stock or ordered it swiftly - although they had no teen fantasy sections. Independent bookstores here know they have to cater to niches and the fixed book prices help them compete with the chains, at least. Of course, they're closing down too as buyers go online, but some are thriving and the picture isn't as bleak as in the English-speaking world: "only" about a quarter of owner-run bookshops in Germany have closed down over the past ten years, as opposed to around half of all high-street bookshops in the UK over seven years, as the Torygraph reported. There's a plan to try and get the state to support independent booksellers, as this interesting Süddeutsche Zeitung piece explains. When I first heard about it I thought: what nonsense. Why should taxpayers fund private initiatives? But the way Felix Stephan comments on it, it does make more sense to me in that he describes independent booksellers as promoting literary diversity and supporting the independent publishing sector. I'm on the fence now, to be honest. 

Anyway, the other news that I'm trying not to find too sad is that Dialogue Books are shutting up shop in Berlin. But hey, they'll still do their excellent events and book clubs and their literary agency thing that they do. Starting with an open event about the future of translation, in conjunction with SAND mag. I shall see you all there. My daughter may well be sulking in the corner behind a teen fantasy book.