Friday 30 August 2013

Berlin Reads - and We Join in

Berlin's International Literature Festival opens on Wednesday, 4 September. It features the usual festival-type smorgasbord of writers from around the world, with a couple of interesting themes such as cultures of aging and women's sexuality on paper.

Anyway, the festival has had a slightly controversial reputation in the past. One of the ways it manages to survive on its budget is by tapping into readers' raw enthusiasm. So they had a programme which consisted of normal Berliners looking after the visiting writers in exchange for free tickets, for example, and of course the seemingly inevitable army of unpaid interns. This year (and I believe last year as well) they have a special pre-festival section called "Berlin liest".

Again, the thing consists of people doing something for free. But we're doing it anyway because we're like that (and let's face it, most of the readings I've ever done have been for free). We'll be reading at 4 p.m. on 4 September at St George's Bookshop in Prenzlauer Berg. Other people (see the link above) are reading out in the open in public places, but that was a step too far for me, frankly.

Here's our particular agenda:

Isabel Cole will be reading from Annemarie Schwarzenbach's All the Roads Are Open.
Karen Margolis will be reading two classical Chinese poems from The Land of the Five Flavours.
I'll be reading from Tilman Rammstedt's The King of China.
Lucy Renner-Jones will be reading from Silke Scheuermann's "Lisa and the Heavenly Bodies".

The translations are all our own work. Mine is a sneak preview, as the book's not quite out yet.

Thursday 29 August 2013

The Rest Will Fall into Place: Goethe Medal to Naveen Kishore

Yesterday the Seagull Books publisher Naveen Kishore was awarded the Goethe Medal in Weimar. The honour is bestowed on people outside of Germany who do very special things to promote German culture and international dialogue.

A group of us Seagull translators went along to the ceremony. I think most of us would have liked it better if there'd been fewer politicians quoting Goethe and more of the excellent music, but then came the proper speeches and they were delightful. Naveen was honoured alongside the Iranian translator Mahmoud Hosseini Zad and the Greek writer and translator Petros Markaris, both of whom made a very passionate and intelligent impression. Elisabeth Ruge held a Laudatio in praise of Naveen, comparing him to a bricoleur and eulogising the Seagull catalogues designed by Sunandini Banerjee – thus proving that she's the coolest dude in German publishing right now, as I have long suspected (especially since she announced she'll soon be leaving German publishing).

And then Naveen held his speech, which you can read in this pdf. It's delightful and you really should spend ten minutes of your life with it. He explains his approach to publishing (he's not the kind of man who'd call it a philosophy, I suspect): intuition, working hard, appreciating culture, doing things as they have to be done, subjectively. Publishing books not because they will make money (although they might, over time) but because someone out there will want to read them. The rest will fall into place.

There wasn't time and space yesterday to tell Naveen how much I – and I know my fellow Seagull translators feel similarly – appreciate what Naveen and everyone at Seagull do. They are a joy to work with, making us feel part of a family, welcoming us into their beautiful office and their wonderful catalogue. They hold our work up high, as high as they hold their authors. And their authors are some of the best there are. I mean more than just printing our names on their book covers, although that of course is second nature to them. I mean treating and editing us with respect, trusting our judgement and instincts, sharing our passions.

I first met Naveen and Sunandini at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009. I knew they were doing some amazing German books and I told them how impressed I was and then asked rather shyly, "I suppose you don't need any more translators, do you?" Yes! they said, and they took my card and admired it and I later received an email asking me what I'd like to translate: "Send me your wish-list." That was the point at which I realised Naveen was a long way from a traditional publisher; at times I've called him an anti-publisher, analogue to the antichrist, the antihero, the antidote. I don't think he'd like to be a hero but I hope he'd like to be an antidote.

Since then I've translated seven books for Seagull, not all of which are yet available. Some of them we've chosen together; some I have suggested; in two cases I knew they'd acquired the rights and I asked if I could translate them. I was invited to India with two of my Seagull writers and looked after and cared for by the Seagull team. Today Naveen sent me the cover design for a very special book that I translated for them: Christa Wolf's last short story, "August". It's beautiful, as to be expected from Sunandini Banerjee, and will be available early next year. I never dreamed I would translate Christa Wolf, and it was a great pleasure and honour to do so. And as I'm so pleased and proud and happy, I shall break my no pictures rule and post it here, because that's what Naveen Kishore and Seagull have taught me: that breaking the rules is sometimes the best thing to do.

Thank you, Naveen.

Monday 26 August 2013

I went out drinking with Eugen Ruge

I did. It was a very good evening out. He's terribly famous, you know. Read all about it on my other blog, Going Dutch with German writers.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Translation Idol Mark V – Welcome to the Republic of no man's land

For the fifth time, the magazine of German literature in translation invites you to pit your wits against your peers in the now legendary talent contest Translation Idol – no man’s land sucht den Superübersetzer*.

To celebrate our monthly literary translation lab, no man’s land invites all those budding, successful and prizewinning German-English translators out there to join in our translation talent contest. Our previous events featuring Ron Winkler, Selim Özdogan, Jan Böttcher and Verena Rossbacher were huge successes with submissions from around the globe, which you can read on our website. After a brief hiatus, this year it’s back to prose of the challenging kind. All you have to do is send us your translation of the passage below, an extract from a story by Deniz Utlu.

Translate it any which way you like – fast and loose, slow and steady, straight from the hip, give it a dialect, put it into iambic pentameter, set it to music – whatever you want to do. You don’t have to be a seasoned professional – a passion for words is all it takes. Please send your translation for the contest (in Word or rtf format) by 30 September to: Don’t forget a brief paragraph about yourself and a telephone number where we can reach you, as we’ll be calling the winners live from the competition.

Ideally, you should be able to attend the contest itself, at 8 pm on 3 October at Alte Kantine Wedding, Uferstrasse 8-11, 13357 Berlin (Wedding). Just turn up with your translation, ready to read. The audience will vote on the winning version, and the writer will choose his own personal favourite. There’ll be prizes galore for the top Translation Idols. If you can’t attend, your text will be read on your behalf. It’s still well worth entering, as all entries will be published on the no man’s land website. Please let us know whether you’ll be coming to the contest when you send your translation.

So get your dictionaries out and get translating! Or just come along to participate in the audience vote and enjoy an entertaining evening of literature and translation.

no man’s land reserves the right to make a prior selection of entries for the contest itself, should the response be overwhelming. 

* Oder die Superübersetzerin.


Deniz Utlu’s Text



„Forget it Jake, it’s chinatown.“
Aus Roman Polanskis Chinatown

Wer nicht finden kann, verlustiert sich. Mit Blicken und Zungen. Mit Fingern und Händen. Im Klaren und im Suff. Nach geschlagener Nacht, Heimkehr der Verlusttiere.
Bewegen, nicht stehen bleiben, immer weiter, immer weiter. In der Bahn, in der Metro, im Verkehr, überall, überall gleichzeitig, immer. Omnipräsent. Wir halten uns wach, denn was wach ist, lebt. Und wir halten uns taub, denn was taub ist, spürt nicht.
Durch die Nase, durch die Kehle. Durch die Ohren, close your eyes. Wein aus Tetrapackkanistern, aus Flaschen manchmal, Bier in Sechserträgern, Wodka mit oder ohne Grashalm, gimme dope Joanna. Bass, Bass. In den Ohren. Bass, Bass. In dem Mund Zunge. Fremde Zunge, nass und kalt und zart und mehrfordernd wie Haut in fester Faust. Rauch. Rauch, in dem wir; Rauch, der in uns: die Stadt ist eine fette schwarze Lunge und in guten Zeiten treibt man sich in den Bronchien herum.
Man berührt sich mit Ellenbogen oder mit Genitalien. Mit Ellenbogen tags und mit Genitalien nachts.

Was verloren ist, soll vergessen sein. Wir haben das Recht zu vergessen. Aber auch, wenn vergessen ist: es bleibt die Angst vor weiterem Verlust. Und wenn etwas vergessen wurde, was nicht da war, was Illusion war und wirklich sein sollte, aber vergessen wurde, weil es nicht wirklich werden konnte, dann ist die Angst, die bleibt, die selbe; nur noch unnötiger. Verlusttiere sind Angsttiere. Sie brauchen die Betäubung.
Ich kann das. Ich kann über die Schwelle eines Kebabgeschäfts in Barbès schreiten, um vor einer Tür in Chinatown zu stehen. Ich kann mich in ein Café in einer Seitengasse in Taksim setzen und bekomme meinen Tee bei Melek in der Oranienstraße serviert.

In letzter Zeit zieht es mich immer häufiger nach Chinatown. Die Tür wird geöffnet und eine weißgepuderte junge Frau mit zugeschnürtem, blumigem Mantel und Chucks an den Füßen, begrüßt mich mit einem höflichen Knicks. Es folgt ein kurzer, dunkler Gang. Die junge Frau öffnet eine Tür und es strömt mir sofort ein süßlicher Duft entgegen. Hinter der Tür befindet sich eine Halle mit zahlreichen Holzetagen. An den Böden und Wänden hängen Teppiche. Leicht bekleidete junge Frauen laufen leisen Schrittes über und durch diese Teppiche. Sie tragen Pfeifen mit sich. Die Pfeifen liegen so zaghaft in den Händen, als hätten sie Seelen. Ich glaube sie haben Seelen. Sie hauchen sie aus und wir atmen sie ein, daher auch der süßliche Duft. Ich folge immer noch der jungen Frau, die mich durch den Rauch und die Teppiche führt. Wir gelangen zu einem kleinen hölzernen Aufzug, der mit Seilen hochgezogen wird. In der dritten oder vierten Etage hält er. Ich weiß schließlich nicht mehr, auf welcher Höhe wir sind und ob vorne oder hinten, Norden oder Süden. Es gibt keine Himmelsrichtungen mehr, es gibt gar keine Richtungen mehr, alle Kapitäne sind entlassen.
Sie hält mich an der Hand und legt mich sanft auf einen Teppich. Dann geht sie. Ich sehe ihren Rücken, ihren Zopf, ich sehe, wie sie verschwindet in dem Rauch, in den Teppichen, in der Seele. Sie verlässt mich. Ich liege da – ein gelähmtes Tier. Es kommt eine Pfeifenträgerin. Sie legt mir die Pfeife auf die Brust und schließt mit ihren kühlen Fingern meine Augen. Mit der anderen Hand hebt sie leicht meinen Kopf. Ich spüre einen Schlauch im Mund. Mit einem tiefen Atemzug ziehe ich daran. Die Seele dringt in mich ein. Jetzt kann ich lächeln.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Clemens Meyer: Im Stein

How can I write about this book, Im Stein? It’s so hard.

I first heard Clemens read from it – what became its final chapter – in 2008. I first read it in an antisocial delirium in April, just after it was finished. I translated an extract in May. It came out two days ago and I have been re-reading it. Until then it felt like it belonged to me. I realize that’s nonsense, but it doesn’t stop me feeling jealous, wildly and fiercely so, that other people can read the book now and write about it and talk about it – and they are, and how. I know the only way I can claim it back for myself is to translate the whole thing.

I don’t want to tell you what it’s about, but I will. This won’t be a review because I can’t do it justice. It’s not a novel that will fit into a review.

It’s about the sex industry, about prostitutes and the men who make money out of them. It’s about one particular man, Arnold Kraushaar, who rents flats out to prostitutes and provides them with services, a man who doesn’t see himself as a pimp as such. And there are other men with other names running other businesses, club managers, gang members, policemen, fathers and regular customers. And there are women who work as prostitutes, and we learn some of their names but they never tell us them directly. It’s about the changes that happen in one big city in East Germany, from a state that tolerated a miniscule amount of informal prostitution to one in which it has been a legalized industry for ten years.

And there are stones and rocks – gemstones and crystal and eyes like diamonds, and tunnels through the rock under the city, and there are angels and killers and horror and there’s even love, or something like it. The women are all so different but most of them so strong, and p. 301 made me cry twice over and I had to skip one chapter when reading for the second time. There is Machiavelli and Karl Marx and Wolfgang Hilbig and David Peace and Hubert Fichte and Lewis Carroll, and no doubt more I haven’t identified. And it ends – almost – with Mahler, but is otherwise nothing like Open City.

Mostly though it’s Clemens Meyer. I know his work very well and, looking at the book again over the past few days, I’ve started to understand what style might mean. Because he employs a number of the techniques from his previous writing here, sharp cuts or stream of consciousness, switching perspectives or making us reel with his characters as the ground falls away beneath their feet. At times he reinvents modernism; snatches of song and conversation, wandering thoughts in the city – very Döblinesque. And he blatantly ignores the rules of reality, physics and even writing, to produce literature that nonetheless feels utterly true-to-life. Dreams never dreamt, conversations never held, dances never danced, dead men’s thoughts. All these things that worked so well in his debut novel, Als wir träumten, and in his short stories that I translated as All the Lights, and in the diary-form collection Gewalten, come together here in an almost overwhelming structure. Meyer skips back and forth in time but propels us along as Arnold Kraushaar ages. He has buried mysteries in his bedrock, which we can trace as the story moves on. But they’re not the driving force of this style-led novel.

People are talking about the book’s morals, but a novel doesn’t have morals. What Meyer has done though is given us these women’s voices, telling banal stories or horrifying ones, making us laugh. Im Stein starts and finishes with prostitutes talking to us about their working days, and there is a great deal of sex in between too, although most of it is not sexy; it’s their job. For the men, too, it’s mostly business. I think that’s what the author wanted to tell us.

The reviews have been excellent, but what bothers me about many of them is that they want to talk about prostitution. Perhaps that’s inevitable; perhaps it’s not yet a topic people can view without a moral lens. There are two things I’d like you to read instead, to give you an idea of the many things that went into the book: an interview with Clemens Meyer and a promotional piece including photos of his desk. You can also read a pdf sample from the first chapter. Im Stein is longlisted for the German Book Prize and I assume will make the shortlist, after which you should be able to read at least part of my translated extract online. And then British and American publishers will buy the translation rights and you’ll be able to read it all in English, one day.

Monday 19 August 2013

Eugen Ruge: Cabo de Gata

Eugen Ruge won the German Book Prize two years ago with In Times of Fading Light (my review). The novel has since been translated into around twenty languages, including Anthea Bell's much-praised English version. It's a multi-layered treat, a four-generational portrait that captures one family's experiences of twentieth-century German history. And a very pleasurable read, for all that.

Ruge has been very busy since then, travelling around the world to promote the book, writing a stage version and doing those things suddenly successful writers do. And while he did them, he wrote another book, Cabo de Gata. It's billed as a novel but it doesn't read like one. It reads more like a writing exercise, which is perhaps what it is, or perhaps the narrator is pulling our leg. Certainly it has very little in common with Ruge's complex debut, except perhaps the passages of the earlier book in which the main character visits Mexico.

For this is a book about a man looking for something - he's not quite sure what, and neither am I - in a strange, remote place. The narrator, he tells us, is a very busy suddenly successful writer. And he's writing down a story from memory, refusing to look back at old notes or check facts online. His younger self, disgusted by what's becoming of Berlin after the Wall comes down and reeling from a separation and his mother's death, gives up everything he has and heads for Spain, randomly arriving in a village called Cabo de Gata on the country's southernmost tip.

There, he tries to write, and the older man gives us the details of how he fails and how he survives - just - in absolute loneliness. He describes the unfriendly locals and the hostile winter beach, the travellers he meets and the objects around which he builds a fragile and pointless routine. There are dogs and flamingos and then a cat, a cat loaded with a symbolism that the narrator is polite enough to allow us to figure out for ourselves, for the most part. And then there's a climax and then there's a slow release, and the narrator bows out with some grace.

It's a gentle book, much less rambunctious than its predecessor, and the writing is subtler. What I particularly appreciated about it was that it felt pared down. One might feel tempted to draw a lot of psychological conclusions about its narrator, and Ruge lays him(self?) wide open to that but doesn't quite give us everything on a plate. By that I mean he's sparing, leaving a lot of gaps that we can choose to fill with our own interpretations or merely enjoy as quiet, melancholy space - perhaps fitting to a book about a seaside village in winter.

Seeing as I've been thinking about writing about place, I have to add that Ruge gave me a great sense of the village. An outsider's portrait that makes no presumption to understand its subject. In fact, with his almost non-existent Spanish, the narrator finds many more riddles than explanations. I liked that a lot.

Sunday 18 August 2013

From Roth to Lewis-Kraus, Pall Mall to Brunnenstraße

I have been thinking again about English-language writers who write about Berlin. I’ve been vocal about my disdain for those articles about how everyone in Berlin is a loser hopping from one club to the next, getting up in the afternoons and generally achieving nothing. And I’ve tired of characters in American novels coming across artefacts of the city’s past at every turn.

What prompted me to revisit the subject was this interview Hermione Lee conducted with Philip Roth while he was staying in a London club in 1983. It’s very long and very interesting if you’re interested in Roth and his work, and how he saw himself and the world in the mid-eighties. What captured my attention was this paragraph:
 Lee: What about England, where you spend part of each year? Is that a possible source of fiction?
Roth: Ask me twenty years from now. That’s about how long it took Isaac Singer to get enough of Poland out of his system—and to let enough of America in—to begin, little by little, as a writer, to see and depict his upper-Broadway cafeterias. If you don’t know the fantasy life of a country, it’s hard to write fiction about it that isn’t just description of the decor, human and otherwise. Little things trickle through when I see the country dreaming out loud—in the theater, at an election, during the Falklands crisis, but I know nothing really about what means what to people here. It’s very hard for me to understand who people are, even when they tell me, and I don’t even know if that’s because of who they are or because of me. I don’t know who is impersonating what, if I’m necessarily seeing the real thing or just a fabrication, nor can I easily see where the two overlap. My perceptions are clouded by the fact that I speak the language. I believe I know what’s being said, you see, even if I don’t. Worst of all, I don’t hate anything here. What a relief it is to have no culture-grievances, not to have to hear the sound of one’s voice taking positions and having opinions and recounting all that’s wrong! What bliss—but for the writing that’s no asset. Nothing drives me crazy here, and a writer has to be driven crazy to help him to see. A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book. Now if I had to live here, if for some reason I were forbidden ever to return to America, if my position and my personal well-being were suddenly to become permanently bound up with England, well, what was maddening and meaningful might begin to come into focus, and yes, in about the year 2005, maybe 2010, little by little I’d stop writing about Newark and I would dare to set a story at a table in a wine bar on Kensington Park Road. A story about an elderly exiled foreign writer, in this instance reading not the Jewish Daily Forward, but the Herald Tribune.

That line about the fantasy life of a country struck a chord for me. And I liked the idea that Roth didn’t understand English society even though he spoke the language. I thought of some of the English-language writers I’ve met in Berlin and how many of them have a weaker grasp of German than Roth’s understanding of British English. And I felt incensed for a while that they might presume to write about this place – my place – without having waited twenty years. Their own description of the decor, I thought.

And then two things occurred to me. The first was that this is no longer 1983. No city is the same as a city was thirty years ago. From what I remember of London in the mid-eighties, it was not as international a place as it was now. Rich foreigners who didn’t have to work could live there and writers could spend time there, if they could afford a room at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. But if you wanted to stay a while you had to find a way to earn a living, like the people who had been moving to the UK from Commonwealth countries since the 1950s, of course. And Berlin in 1983 – Bowie had moved on and the international community consisted essentially of soldiers, spies and Gastarbeiter.

Since then the nature of the way people earn a living has changed. In brief: we have the internet. Which means that if you can make enough to live in London by writing for American publications, say, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t live in London. And if you can’t make enough to live in London you can probably scrape together enough to live in Berlin. And so we have a floating class – if that’s that the right way to put it – of shorter-term international residents, some more conventional like the job-seekers from southern Europe, some who don’t need to look for work because they bring it with them on their laptops.

And that changes cities. I can tell by the languages shouted outside my window. At this moment it’s Italian, I think, but I hear a lot of American and British English and other European languages. There’s German too, of course; I live above an off-licence and there’s a lot of shouting. But there really is a whole layer of Berlin society that seems to me to exist on the surface, with nothing to link them to the place – no workmates, no old friends or partners or relatives, little language – other than clubs, bars, shops and restaurants and perhaps other people in the same situation. Like classic migrant workers, in some aspects, but with more leisure time and a different attitude.

For several years I felt quite alienated by these new arrivals. Their lives aren’t like mine; I envied them their apparent hedonism but I thought they were missing out by not getting to know what I see as the ‘real’ Berlin. But thinking about it in more depth, I realize that’s not right. There is no real Berlin. The way I experience the city, having worked and lived with Berliners for many years, is just my version of Berlin. Like the way I see Facebook is different to the way you see it. My Berlin contains the off-licence downstairs and lakeside teen parties in 1992 and a student hostel now turned into an OAPs’ home and my daughter’s old school and the poster of Harald Juhnke on Budapester Straße and Mayday demonstrations and the drab racecourse at Karlshorst and that smell in the West Berlin U-Bahn stations that’s gone now. Your Berlin is different.

So I’m coming to terms with English-language writers sharing my city. I will allow their experience of the place to be as valid as mine, even though I rarely recognize it. I still flinch when I hear an American-accented ‘God, that’s so German!’ but I will be more patient with the ex-pat literary community, because what I thought of for so long as only scratching the surface is just as relevant and genuine a way to experience Berlin as mine is.

The second thing I realized is this: There is more than one way to write about place. One of the things I resented, or still resent if I’m perfectly honest, is that English-speaking readers seem more interested in reading English-speaking writers’ takes on other places than writing by long-term residents; in this case German novels. That Christopher Isherwood and Len Deighton and Anna Funder and Louise Welsh have the Berlin writing market cornered. I don’t think I’ll ever get over this envy by proxy. I want English-speaking readers to turn to Helene Hegemann and Inka Parei and Tobias Rapp to get a taste of the city, a sense of what it’s like have put down roots here. And oh, Eugen Ruge and Stefanie de Velasco and Ralf Rothmann and Julia Franck and David Wagner and Yadé Kara and Torsten Schulz and Annett Gröschner, and I’m turning circles in front of my bookshelves and getting dizzy on all the wonderful German writers who’ve put Berlin down on paper.

I think there is a difference between German-speaking writers on Berlin and English-speaking writers on Berlin, but that difference isn’t actually a question of decor – shallow surfaces – or depth. It’s more a question of what kind of Berlin they see. I just listened to Gideon Lewis-Kraus reading a piece on the city from his book A Sense of Direction. It is set not far from the off-licence downstairs but it’s not a place I recognize. I don’t know any of the characters, most of whom seem to come from New York. I’ve never been in a similar situation or felt a similar sense of despair. But it’s fine if people understand it as capturing Berlin, because it does capture Lewis-Kraus’s Berlin a few years ago. His book comes out in German next month, translated by Thomas Pletzinger, whose Berlin contains a lot more basketball than mine. 

And Lewis-Kraus has written about the compulsion to write about Berlin for Readux Books – City of Rumor, coming out in October. I shall try my best to read it with an open mind.

Let me finish by returning to Roth in his Pall Mall room:
 Lee: What do novels do then?
Roth: To the ordinary reader? Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read. That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.

There’s a lesson for me here, too. The Berlin novels I love do that, primarily. They provide me with reading pleasure rather than information about the city. Perhaps they’re less writing about place than using the place for their writing. There’s no need to read them for moral purposes, to get an insider’s view. We can read them because they’re beautiful.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Contemporary German Fiction 101 - the Reading List

I wrote that I was offering a course on reading German writing, and now enough people have signed up for me to put the reading list together. There are still a couple of places, though, so if you've been hesitating now's the time to sign up. You can do so via The Reader Berlin. The course costs €100 for seven weeks.

We'll be meeting in Berlin-Mitte on Monday nights from 26 August. And we'll be reading short texts by:

Selim Özdogan
Deniz Utlu
Inka Parei
Clemens Meyer
David Wagner
Stefanie De Velasco
Felicitas Hoppe

As I suspected, it's turned out to be Writers Katy Likes 101 to some extent. But all the pieces offer a lot to think and talk about.

Friday 16 August 2013

US PEN Translation Prize to Donald O. White

The PEN America Center announced the winners of its literary awards a couple of days ago. Scroll down, down, down to the PEN Translation Prize, which has been awarded to Donald O. White for Albert Vigoleis Thelen's Island of Second Sight.

I'm very pleased indeed. My friend Amanda DeMarco reviewed the novel for Three Percent earlier this year, so I know it must be outstanding. And White got an honorary mention for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize too. I've been feeling eternally guilty because the British publishers sent me a big fat review copy a couple of years ago (the book came out in the UK in 2011). At which I baulked slightly - a 450,000-word novel about bohemian adventures in 1930s Mallorca! - and passed it on to someone else to read, who presumably baulked as well and passed it on to... and so on. Which is why there's no love german books review.

And that's been somewhat of a pattern, I suspect. The story of how the English translation came to be published is an inspiring one. The Cambridge-based translator Isabelle Weiss rediscovered the novel, which was first published in the Netherlands in 1953; too anti-fascist for German publishers even then. And she found out that the American Germanist Donald O. White (don't you love the name overlap?) had been working on a translation for twenty-odd years. A labour of love, I believe we call this. So they spent a year or so approaching major UK publishers with the manuscript, all of whom said no. It was too long and too obscure. In the end, a friend - Robert Hyde - who'd been in on it all from the beginning, decided to revive his old publishing house and bring the translation out himself.

It helped that Thomas Mann and Paul Celan had praised the book in the 1950s. The novel got favourable reviews in serious publications and was then picked up by Overlook Press in the US. Where they certainly know how to honour translators, if not in monetary terms then at least in terms of high-profile awards. White receives $3500 from PEN and the knowledge that a lot of people appreciate his hard work and excellent translation. 

I think this is a great success story, one to remind us that it is OK to publish long, obscure books in translation. Specially for Donald, Isabelle and Robert - and by way of apology - here's the world's biggest band playing their tune in suitably ecstatic manner.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

German Book Prize Longlist 2013

They've announced this year's longlist for the major German prize for novels. I've linked to each of the twenty titles:

Mirko Bonné: Nie mehr Nacht (Schöffling & Co., August 2013)
Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt (Wallstein, March 2013)
Thomas Glavinic: Das größere Wunder (Hanser, August 2013)
Norbert Gstrein: Eine Ahnung vom Anfang (Hanser, May 2013)
Reinhard Jirgl: Nichts von euch auf Erden (Hanser, February 2013)
Daniel Kehlmann: F (Rowohlt, September 2013)
Judith Kuckart: Wünsche (DuMont, March 2013)
Olaf Kühl: Der wahre Sohn (Rowohlt.Berlin, September 2013)
Dagmar Leupold: Unter der Hand (Jung und Jung, July 2013)
Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren (C. H. Beck, January 2013)
Clemens Meyer: Im Stein (S. Fischer, August 2013)
Joachim Meyerhoff: Wann wird es endlich wieder so, wie es nie war (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, February 2013)
Terézia Mora: Das Ungeheuer (Luchterhand, September 2013)
Marion Poschmann: Die Sonnenposition (Suhrkamp, August 2013)
Thomas Stangl: Regeln des Tanzes (Droschl, September 2013)
Jens Steiner: Carambole (Dörlemann, August 2013)
Uwe Timm: Vogelweide (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, August 2013)
Nellja Veremej: Berlin liegt im Osten (Jung und Jung, February 2013)
Urs Widmer: Reise an den Rand des Universums (Diogenes, August 2013)
Monika Zeiner: Die Ordnung der Sterne über Como (Blumenbar, March 2013)

I'm getting a sense of déja vu. There's a mix of major and minor publishers, solvent and insolvent, mostly men and some women, local and global settings, faux-genre and standard litfic, solid and quirky, a couple of debuts, a few established writers and a few with other native languages. Reading the publishers' blurbs doesn't help matters, as many of their formulations are a tad overused. Some writers are available in English translation: Glavinic, Gstrein, Kehlmann, Meyer, Mora, Timm and Widmer. Some seem to be on the list merely to call attention to their work rather than with any intent to give them a prize. A few have been on previous longlists but not won.

But then there's Clemens Meyer's Im Stein, which doesn't fit into any category. I would like it to win. I would like English-language publishers to buy the rights. I would like everyone in the whole world to know how good it is. I'm glad there's a book that makes me feel less jaded on those days when the publishing world makes me feel cynical.

The now traditional reader containing extracts from all twenty novels will be available "in good bookstores" as of next week, allegedly. I shall do my best to track it down and report in more detail before the shortlist is announced on 11 September.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Naomi Aldermann Talks Translation

British writer Naomi Aldermann hosted a fascinating show on Radio 4 yesterday, which you can listen to online. She spoke to three translators and four British writers about their experiences with being translators and being translated: Frank Wynne, Adriana Hunter and Daniel Hahn, plus AS Byatt, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith and David Baddiel. And she even had a go at translating for herself.

The writers made me very scared. Baddiel in particular seems to have an entrenched distrust of translation, based on the misunderstanding that his message - what the novelist wants to say - is ever going to get across untainted to the reader. I was frankly insulted by some of his comments. But even someone as clever as AS Byatt, who talks about her great relationship with her German translator Melanie Walz, says she prefers not to read translations. Ali Smith, however, is sparkling and intelligent and refers to translation as an ecstatic process. I'm glad the producer gave her the last word.

What the programme does quite cleverly is to juxtapose these writers - who don't know much about the nuts and bolts of how translation gets done, of course - with actual working translators. They all join in on a translation slam with Aldermann, who makes a few choices we wouldn't necessarily make, being a novelist rather than a translator. And they talk about how they work, defending the profession to some extent. They're still not named on the BBC website though. 

I suppose there are a couple of lessons in the show, for me: Firstly, that we still have some way to go, if even novelists take the view that translations are second-class versions, filtered reading that ought to be undertaken with the original at hand to check up on the translator's mistakes. There is some talk of the impossibility of translation, the fact that languages don't correspond one to one, and that English with its rich vocabulary is difficult to render into other languages. But they don't pick up on the idea that this might make English translations a richer experience than some originals, at least in theory. Nor do they think about whether writing itself is "possible" - whether emotions, sights, sounds, smells can be adequately translated into words. Most of the writers seem trapped within the notion that translators work on a word-by-word basis, "swapping in English words for foreign ones" - which made me rather sad. Little talk of tone, rhythm, voice, cadence, or any of those things we put so much effort into capturing.

And the second lesson is about translation metaphors. Have I mentioned before that I abhor translation metaphors? That bloody ferryman, the actor interpreting the playwright's words, the ventriloquist, the cow chewing the writer's cud and passing it through her four stomachs to produce manure. Here, though, the translators talk about translators as musicians - Aldermann uses the rather unfortunate image of an amateur pianist but Hunter picks it up and runs with it, admirably. And I'm coming to believe than when we're talking to a wider audience and not among ourselves, perhaps the occasional comparison is useful. Seeing as we work on rhythm, voice and cadence, perhaps the musician will do the trick. 

Do listen, now that I've spoiled it all for you. Stick your fingers in your ears when David Baddiel talks but let your love for Ali Smith flow.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

BCLT Summer School Presents... Daniela Dröscher in English

I mentioned I led a workshop at the BCLT's literary translation summer school, working with a group of translators and German writer Daniela Dröscher. And now you can read the end products online, at There are three extracts from two novels: Die Lichter des George Psalmanazar and Pola.

Each extract presented its own set of problems. Pola, for instance, has a subtly arch tone and shifts perspective a great deal, with its Hollywood heroine's gaze watching others watch her. The first passage from Die Lichter... is very lyrical and proved tricky to understand at some points, surprisingly so for the opening of a novel. And the second extract from the book features reported speech by Samuel Johnson, of all people - no easy task to recreate in English. I was pleased that the translators did a great deal of research, working with historical texts, linguistic corpora, film clips and other documents.

Both novels take real historical individuals as the basis for fictional stories; they're not historical novels at all. But Dröscher does use language fitting to her characters, and that was what made translating her work most difficult. I think the summer school participants have stepped up to the challenge and produced some very impressive pieces of writing. Do take a look.

Many thanks to all the translators for making my work so stimulating and to Daniela for all her input.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Wilhelm Raabe Longlist

They announced the longlist for the prestigious Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize, which is awarded by Deutschlandradio and the City of Braunschweig and worth €30,000.

Mirko Bonné: Nie mehr Nacht

Gunther Geltinger: Moor

Thomas Glavinic: Das größere Wunder

Ernst-Wilhelm Händler: Der Überlebende

Georg Klein: Die Zukunft des Mars

Brigitte Kronauer: Gewäsch und Gewimmel

Hartmut Lange: Das Haus in der Dorotheenstraße

Rainer Merkel: Bo

Clemens Meyer: Im Stein

Terézia Mora: Das Ungeheuer

Hans Pleschinski: Königsallee

Marion Poschmann: Die Sonnenposition

A lot of big books on this list - Geltinger read from something that became this novel at Klagenfurt in 2011 and I liked it, Bonné, Merkel and Klein have adventure books for boys, Kronauer and Poschmann give us mental health issues, as does Mora, perhaps, in a sequel to her last book, and Pleschinski's book is a Thomas Mann novel (surely a genre of its own by now, the novel about major German novelists).

My favourite, though, is obviously Clemens Meyer's Im Stein, which is out on 22 August. I'm not allowed to review it until then, which is tough because I've been loving it with a passion since April and talking about little else.

The award is a little complicated. It goes to a writer for a book out this year, but it also takes in all their previous work. And it's gone to some really top writers in the past, from Max Frisch to Ralf Rothmann and Sibylle Lewitscharoff.  

Monday 5 August 2013

Adam Fletcher: How to be German in 50 Easy Steps

I don't need much advice on how to be German, seeing as I'm so totally assimilated I even read German books. But someone sent me Adam Fletcher's cute flip-over book How to Be German/Wie man Deutscher wird so I read it. I'm quite obedient.

It's cute because of the choochie little illustrations by Robert M. Schöne. And also because of the content, which I shall come to in a moment. And it's flip-over because you turn it over and get my friend Ingo Herzke's German translation. It's a very good translation, should you wish to read about how to be German in German.

Anyway, the content. The UK seems to be looking to Germany as an economic model - with BBC2 screening a show called "Make Me a German" tomorrow, which looks strangely humourless and makes the BIG mistake of investigating life in Bavaria rather than anywhere else. So there's a clip on the website of a group of mums talking about why they don't work, rather proudly, but no mention of the fact that childcare is actually affordable here (if not sufficiently available), unlike in the UK. Adam Fletcher, however, has more of an insider's perspective, having moved here a few years ago, lived in Leipzig and then Berlin and got himself a German girlfriend. Hooray!

It's based on a blog, which people kept telling me to read but I didn't because I know perfectly well how to be German, thank you very much, and didn't need to be told by some Johnny-come-lately whippersnapper. Also, his blog is a zillion times more popular than mine - even my amusing blog about going Dutch with German writers - possibly because it's funnier. Or just less intellectual. But it turns out it's actually rather good, and better reading for a hot weekend afternoon than Love German Books.

You get fifty helpful hints, going through basics like wearing slippers at all times in your flat (I don't), eating German bread (I do), speaking freely about sex (I do sometimes), recycling (I do), wearing outdoor-equipment-type clothing with zip-off legs (no, sorry) - so you could theoretically give yourself marks out of 50 to see how German you are. For the next edition, they could add little check-boxes. And all the useful instructions are very cleverly observed and witty. My favourite is the one about mixing your beverages. Because it really is a very odd thing, all these mixtures of beer and grapefruit juice, beer and chili and mango, beer and elderberries, for goodness' sake, and the ultimate oddity: Coke and Fanta in one bottle. In case you haven't tried it: no, it's not very nice.

Fletcher has great comic timing but keeps it pretty brief. He spots the contradictions, the two hearts beating, ach! in the German chest. Like watching Tatort religiously but thinking it's rubbish and going ballistic once a year with NYE fireworks (for Germans: that was a pun). And he knows words like shrousers. You should probably buy it, especially if you can't get BBC2.

RBB Kulturradio and Me

I started listening to RBB Kulturradio after I realised nobody was going to take me under their wing and teach me about classical music, so I might as well start educating myself. My favourite show is the phone-in where people have to guess the tune, because all humankind is there, from know-it-alls to humble pie-eaters. Sadly it's only on once a month and I can never remember what it's called. They also have decent literary coverage and occasional radio plays. I don't listen on Sundays though because it's too religious for my taste.

This summer they're running a series of blogger profiles. A while ago Johannes Fischer and I sat in the park with a couple of beers and talked on tape - about books and blogging, and drinking and writers. There were some buskers but he paid them to go away. Now you can listen to what he put together. My auntie disapproves of the line "sie trinkt gern" and I did indeed feel a little consternation at being described as such. But I suppose it's true.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Contemporary German Fiction 101

I am launching a new venture! It's an evening course in Berlin with The Reader, designed especially for English-speaking readers who want an introduction to what's being written in German right now. We'll be reading contemporary short stories in German and talking about them in English. Obviously the chosen texts haven't yet been translated, so there'll be no cheating. But they should offer a gateway into today's German fiction.

I got the idea because English-speaking literary people quite often ask me what to read in German. I know there are plenty who mean to get round to it, any day now, as soon as they find the time, definitely this year. So the class will give you a little nudge to overcome your inneren Schweinehund.

It'll be Monday nights in Mitte for seven weeks, starting 26 August. I'm charging €100 for my guidance and expertise. All the details are available at The Reader Berlin's website - and that's where you go to sign up, too. Please do.