Monday, 14 October 2013

Making of... The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping

I mentioned I'd been thinking of ways to write about my own translations without just banging on about how fab they are. So I thought I'd try out something like a translator's note, only separate from the book itself. In this case, anything I write has to be separate from the book itself, because The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping is a very small book. Here's how it came about.

I first heard about Francis Nenik's essay "Vom Wunder der doppelten Biografieführung" in March 2012. It was at an event that called itself an award ceremony for Edit magazine's essay prize. I'd spoken to one of the magazine's editors in October 2011, at a translation workshop in Leipzig. He was very keen on American essays and felt that the Germans weren't very good at essay-writing. I wasn't so sure but I wasn't aware of many German essay-writers either. Anyway, by that point Edit had launched their essay competition and it turned out they were fairly swamped with entries, so everyone was happy. Back to the event: it was rather late at night at the Leipzig book fair, in one of the medieval cellars rooms of the Moritzbastei. And two of the competition's four judges were there, then-DuMont publisher Jo Lendle, whom I met there for the first time, and Michael Angele from the newspaper Freitag. But the other two judges weren't, so I can't remember who they were but they were both women. So after their rather long day, one of the judges made the rather tactless announcement that although he hadn't actually won because the other two judges thought his essay was too macho (I think that was the gist of it), Francis Nenik was their actual favourite. And his essay was printed in the Freitag shortly later. Nenik wasn't actually at the award ceremony, however, because he doesn't make public appearances, but his publisher accepted the second prize on his behalf. I'm told people suspected the publisher was actually Nenik, but he wasn't (the publishing house ed.cetera is very small but not quite that small).

Anyway, I read the essay and admired it hugely, and wrote about it here. And somehow or other Francis Nenik got my address, or in fact I think his publisher did because it turned out the two of us had met previously but I'd forgotten, and Francis asked me if I'd translate his essay. He'd pay. I said yes, I'd love to, and I did love doing it, and then Francis started submitting my translation to English literary magazines.

Meanwhile, my friend Amanda DeMarco was coming up with a plan to set up her own small publishing house. She and I met when we ran a reading group together, scouting out possible German titles for translation for And Other Stories. Amanda's idea was to publish very short books of fiction and essays, some translated, some with a link to Berlin, some specially commissioned original English writing. Thus, after months and months of advice-seeking and talking and planning and working, working, working, Readux Books was born. Amanda asked me whether I'd like to translate something for her. She'd pay. I said yes, I'd love to, and we started talking about what to choose. I sent her the German version of Francis's essay, but for some reason I didn't tell her I'd already translated it. And she'd heard about it but not read it, but when she did she liked it as much as I did, so she got in touch with Francis. And then Francis told her there was already a translation, by me, and Amanda must have thought I was crazy, but anyway everybody was happy and Francis got back the money he'd paid me for the translation from Amanda. I assume.

So what's it about? The first half of the book is an essay about the poets Nicholas Moore and Ivan Blatny, who lived in and around London during the 1950s and 60s and were both down on their luck. Moore simply went out of fashion, while Blatny went into a mental institution. And the bookkeeping marvel is that the essay is in two columns, because it turns out their lives were strangely parallel, if you look at them through Nenik's eyes. It was tricky to translate because the columns had to be more or less the same length, but Nicholas Moore has more letters in his name than Ivan Blatny so there's minutely more information about Blatny than there is about Moore, which meant that one or other side was always too long. Also because things written in German about England always require rather a lot of research to find the correct formulations, because if you get it wrong everyone will notice. But as it turned out, Nenik had done a lot of research of his own and provided me with a number of useful sources.

The second half arrived later. I shall quote from the author's note:
It was originally my intention to include a short prose piece about Ivan Blatny at this point. In the course of my research, however, in February 2011, I came across previously unknown material in the London Metropolitan Archives, to be precise an exchange of letters between Blatny and Nicholas Moore dating from 1962/63. As these documents have not been published to date and both poets are now widely forgotten or almost unknown, I would like to take this opportunity to reproduce the letters in full.
We could hardly turn them down, so the letters were squeezed into the tiny book.

In the meantime, Amanda and I had the rare privilege of actually meeting Francis Nenik in person, a year along the line at the Leipzig book fair in March. He was quite a remarkable person, and kindly agreed to be my guinea pig for the Going Dutch with German Writers blog. I do feel proud of the way Francis and Amanda and I have made this book happen.

I still adore this adventurous little piece of writing. Please buy it and read it for yourself - it comes out tomorrow. It costs $4.99 or €3.99 or a small number of pounds for the little 64-page print book, which is worth it. Or less for the e-book, which is also worth it. The beautiful cover was designed by André Gottschalk (as were the other three covers in this series). Amanda DeMarco being Amanda DeMarco (in other words, a woman with a huge amount of energy and passion and a strong sense of ethics), the book has my name on the cover. This is what it looks like:

There'll be a launch party for Readux Books in Berlin on 24 October. I think you should all come but I'm not sure whether you need an invitation or not.


Unknown said...

And yes, Francis was reimbursed...

des von bladet said...

I do wonder quite how sad the Kindle rendering of the dual column format is going to make me, but at $2.75 it would be rude not to find out.

kjd said...

It would. And it would be rude of me not to personally thank every single person who tells me they've bought it. Thank you.

des von bladet said...

I even read it - as proof, I remark that I was surprised to see "maisonette" occur at one point as a synonym for "flat".

I actually really like the format - I only like books I can read in one gulp and nowadays I can't sit around gulping for a weekend.

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