Saturday 30 November 2013

Who Talks about Translation?

I've been thinking about what happens when writers talk about translation, and when translators talk about our work. Mostly I've been thinking about it because I saw Adam Thirlwell and Cees Nooteboom last week, talking about translation. But there have been a few other things on my mind, like the website Authors & Translators and a recent translation slam and that Radio 4 show I wrote about a while ago.

So here's what I think has been happening: I think that informed readers in general have become more interested in the translation process and in translated literature. It's a wonderful, delightful thing, but I'm not sure why it's happened.

It could be because translators have become more vocal now that we can make ourselves heard via the internet. In my experience, many translators are rather introverted – not the kind of people to shout about our work on a soap-box. I sometimes wonder if that's because we're used to hiding behind a writer, or whether we choose our profession because we want someone to hide behind. But blogging or even tweeting is an unobtrusive way to communicate; nobody's forced to listen but if they want to hear what we have to say, they can.

Another reason I find plausible is that the internet gives us myriad niches to talk about obscure things, like international fiction. If I imagine the internet as a school playground, then the very odd kids gathered in one corner talking translation seem to be exerting a strange pull on some of those playing marbles in the middle, merely by having an interesting and passionate conversation. And some of the odd kids in another corner, the ones talking about their own writing, are getting lured in as well.

I mean, a lot of people who talk about books are writers, maybe unpublished ones or maybe famous ones or maybe the kind who've been meaning to write a novel for years now but never quite... And now they've started to talk about translation, because of the general fascination or because they've always been the kind of people who like to talk about Tolstoy. Many of them have been on the receiving end of translation, and a few of them have tried it out for themselves (Franzen, Thirlwell, Parks...). But the problem I see is that the two conversations aren't coming together. So what we often get is writers talking about translation in the form of anecdotes about their experiences, and translators talking about writing and translation separately.

The problem with anecdotes about translation from non-translators is that most of the funniest ones are about where it goes wrong, usually on the word level. That's what Nooteboom gave us in Berlin this week, and of course we all laughed awkwardly, and that's what David Baddiel gave us on Radio 4 in August. Thirlwell tried his best to balance out the negative with his sheer enthusiasm for the act of translation and for the new possibilities it opens up. He sums it up in an interview (German) with Die Zeit - although the anecdote about Flaubert is actually about Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot. But without a translator on the stage, or involved in the conversation, the narrative of this kind of talking about translation is often arranged around things getting lost, or misunderstood, or simply not working. What we rarely hear about is the creative input involved – very possibly because some writers simply aren't fully aware of it.

And then we have the translation slam. I've never been to one but I do have to rectify that as soon as possible. I think part of the point is for translators to show (and tell) what we do and how many ways there are to go about it. Danny Hahn and Rosalind Harvey talked about it in the Independent the other day. There, Simon Usborne calls the writer/translator split illustrative of "a cultural difference between symbiotic trades". I rather like that. Ros Harvey puts it like this: "Translators are often described as writers with less ego. It's nice to be behind the scenes putting an author on a world stage but it's also nice to win a bit of glory."

There are occasions when writers and translators take the stage together, though, and what I'd like would be to see those events shift their emphasis slightly. In the past, the standard format would be something like: chair, translated writer, translator. Chair asks writer questions, translator interprets and possibly reads from her work. On one shocking occasion, a chair introduced the writer at length and told the audience the translator's first name only. I think we've been changing the game over the past few years though. When And Other Stories organizes readings with writers and translators, for instance, the translator is asked questions of her own. I've been on stage with writers I've translated using a fairly simple format, where we ask each other questions and then let the audience ask us some more, with short readings in between. And in Berlin, the International Literature Award invites both writer and translator on stage for chit-chat. But while one event I saw at this year's International Literary Festival featured both writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus and his translator Thomas Pletzinger, another left Ben Marcus's translator Thomas Melle firmly out of things and had an actor reading his words. The odd thing is that in both cases, the translator is a novelist in his own right.

So here is what I'd like: I'd like people who organize events or radio programmes or conversations about translation to involve both sides of the equation at the same time. I'd like writers to deflate their egos enough to make room on stage for translators' smaller ones. I'd like translators to learn to speak for ourselves in public rather than only as interpreters for our writers, and to inflate our own egos a little. I'd like to see exactly the conversation that took place between Adam Thirlwell and Cees Nooteboom, only with a translator having her say too. Yes, that's it.   

Thursday 28 November 2013

The Love German Books Seasonal Gift List for 2013

Long nights drawing in, etc. etc. You need to buy presents for people. You have an evangelical streak and a passion for German books. I am here to help you. Here's my annual list of books translated from German to English this year, for you to give to your friends and relatives. You know they've been looking forward to it all year. See also the lists from 2012 and 2011. I can vouch for all these books because I've either read them at some point or heard very good things about them.

For Scotsmen: Naw Much of a Talker by Pedro Lenz (trans. Donal McLaughlin)

For organized people: Tretjak by Max Landorff (trans. Baida Dar)

For men who like talking about women: On the Edge by Markus Werner (trans. Robert E. Goodwin)

For women who like talking about men: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (trans. Jamie Bulloch)

For travel fans: The Village Indian by Abbas Khider (trans. Donal McLaughlin)

For China fans: The King of China by Tilman Rammstedt (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For Persia fans: Death in Persia by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (trans. Lucy Renner-Jones)

For L.A. fans: City of Angels by Christa Wolf (trans. Damion Searls)

For Greenland fans: Anatomy of a Night by Anna Kim (trans. Bradley Schmidt)

For poetry-prose fans: Mirage by Thomas Lehr (trans. Mike Mitchell)

For spider fans: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf (trans. Susan Bernofsky)

For chess fans: A Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (trans. Alexander Starritt)

For doggy fans: Puppy Love by Frauke Scheunemann (trans. Shelley Frisch)

For Walser fans: Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls)

For Franzen fans: The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen (trans. Jonathan Franzen)

For graphic novel fans: Love Looks Away by Line Hoven (don't know who translated it)

For translation fans: Portrait of a Tongue by Yoko Tawada (trans. Chantal Wright)

For happy mothers: In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (trans. Anthea Bell)

For unhappy mothers: Wrecked by Charlotte Roche (trans. Tim Mohr)

For siblings: Back to Back by Julia Franck (trans. Anthea Bell)

For utopianists: Plan D by Simon Urban (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For cynics: Apostoloff by Sibylle Lewitscharoff (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

Monday 25 November 2013

Berlin Translation Events

Lots and lots of things are happening in Berlin right now, just to make you envious instead of me, for a change. Starting tomorrow with Adam Thirlwell at the Berliner Ensemble with Cees Nooteboom, talking about Thirlwell's big thick book Miss Herbert, which is out in German now. It's about novels and translation and the strange paths between the two, and I hope to learn how to pronounce Cees Nooteboom's name. If you can't catch that you have another chance for added Adam Thirlwell admiration at the Dialogue Literary Lounge on Wednesday - make sure you rsvp.

Then on Friday it's Tatwort - die Übersetziade. It's the same as Translation Idol only the other way around - at Privatwirtschaft, Immanuelkirchstraße 21 in Prenzlauer Berg. Featuring poet Donna Stonecipher.

Next week, there are two more thrilling things for translation fans: on Tuesday (the best night of the week to go out, in my opinion) the long-awaited annual no man's land reading! Featuring translator Donna Stonecipher...

with Liane Dirks, Steffen Popp and Tom Schulz
The bilingual launch of no man's land Issue # 8 features authors Liane Dirks, Steffen Popp and Tom Schulz with their translators Laura Radosh, Bradley Schmidt and Donna Stonecipher.
Liane Dirks will read from her acclaimed novel Krystyna about the unlikely romance between a Holocaust survivor and the son of a Nazi filmmaker. Experimental poets Steffen Popp and Tom Schulz are central figures in the young Berlin literary scene, and their widely divergent approaches offer a sense of its exhilarating diversity.
Issue # 8 will appear early December at, with fiction by Jörg Bernig, Mirko Bonné, Michael Buselmeier, Astrid Dehe & Achim Engstler, Liane Dirks, Franz Fühmann, Margarita Iov, Francis Nenik, Christoph Ransmayr, Ralf Rothmann and Carmen Stephan, and poetry by Helwig Brunner, Martin Jankowski, Steffen Popp, Utz Rachowski, Tom Schulz and Volker Sielaff.
As usual, drinks will be available from the Saint Georges bar, Christmas cookies are in the offing, and we hope you'll linger to chat and celebrate with us after the reading!

December 3, 2013
8 p.m.
Saint Georges Bookshop

Wörther Str. 27
Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg
And on Thursday it's Fiction Canteen number two!!
The Fiction Canteen is a series of networking events, readings and discussions that takes place on a sporadic basis at the alte Kantine Wedding. On 5 December at 20.00, the next Fiction Canteen event invites authors, translators and everyone interested in the discussion to take part in an informal discussion in English and German on the subject of:
–types of payment model for authors and translators in the era of digital publishing, and their pros and cons
–working for Amazon as an author and translator: the possible pitfalls
–Amazon seen from an epublishing perspective
–alternative sources of financing for events, books, readings such as crowdfunding.
On the panel will be:
Volker Oppmann, founder of the platform  LOG.OS and publisher at Onkel and Onkel in Berlin.
Nikola Richter, founder of mikrotext, a digital publisher specialising in short digital texts.
Amanda De Marco, founder of Readux, a publisher of (mostly) translated literature based in Berlin and a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives.
Zoe Beck, thriller writer, ( and co-founder of CulturBooks, (, an ebook publisher of both original works and translations.
Nerys Hudson, former bookseller and project coordinator at Dialogue Books (, an online space for literature, specialising in connecting stories and readers.
We are looking forward to a lively discussion. If there are any questions you’d like to raise in particular, please forward your questions to: contact (@) Equally, if you are keen on suggesting an event for the Fiction Canteen in the future, drop us a line. Thanks!
I know you're bursting with either envy or excitement. You see, all that hype about Berlin and it's even true.

Thursday 21 November 2013

(New) German Publishers' Blogs

For quite some time, German publishers were thoroughly old-school. That meant they were not only very wary of electronic formats, but also quite shy of the internet and especially bloggers. That's been changing gradually, with the advent of reading platforms like and – which I don't like personally but a lot of publishers seem to appreciate – with videos embedded via – which I do like but rarely watch – and recently with official guidelines for book bloggers interested in review copies. Suhrkamp, for example, has a special page of Information for Bloggers with a slightly patronising list of suggested titles.

So it seems like that sea change has come; it's now officially OK to request review copies if you're a book blogger. And since around the last book fair, a few major publishers have even launched their own blogs. Publishers' blogs are never going to be impartial, but it would be nice if they offered readers a little something extra that's not on the standard website. Do they? A road test.

Let's start with the much-feted Kiepenheuer & Witsch blog. So far it's mostly extracts from a translated book (Craig Brown's Hello Goodbye Hello), an interview with KiWi author Alina Bronsky by Isabel Bogdan, a couple of book-industry glosses and recycled speeches and two photos of pages from the publisher's notebook, annotated by the tech-savvier young'uns. There doesn't seem to be much character shining through as yet – Moby Lives it ain't.

Suhrkamp brings us the slightly more excitingly named Logbuch - deutschsprachige Literatur heute. I think they can just about get away with the title because they do actually feature a couple of writers (three out of fourteen) not published by Suhrkamp. It's more interesting than the KiWi blog because the writers are writing themselves, book industry stuff and diaries and other short pieces. I enjoyed Marion Poschmann on beauty, even though it could have been longer. They've also re-used a couple of making-of videos about Clemens J. Setz's last novel that were previously on a different Suhrkamp site, and an editor has an unfortunately-named column with the word daily in the title, last published on the 11th of November. Plus large numbers of apparently random photos. This one is certainly using all kinds of formats and has a fair amount of material to offer already, but I feel a bit cheated by the whole "German-language literature today" thing.

Thirdly there's hundertvierzehn, which promises a peek behind the doors of S. Fischer Verlag (114 is their house number). Endearingly, the head honcho has written a welcome letter. This one has a lot of background material on Fischer books and authors, including video interviews with Ai Weiwei, Clemens Meyer and Felicitas Hoppe (the last two in the manner of Hubert Fichte!), an audio interview with Anne Frank's German translator and writer Miriam Pressler, darling postcards from writers to their editors, a short essay by Uda Strätling on re-translating Brave New World, links to songs Thomas von Steinaecker listens to, and a tiny amount of recycled stuff (from the house literary magazine Neue Rundschau - but at least they tell us that). I like this one best because it's both quirky and intelligent – except there's no comment function.

There are others, even some that have been going for several years, and no doubt a few I'm not aware of. What I'd like, ideally, is a publishing-house blog written with wit and covering all sorts of bases. We all know the purpose is to drum up interest in their products and make us think they care about us, the readers. So it's fine for publishers to focus on their own authors as long as they're open about it, but I'd like to hear from others like editors, trainees, translators, illustrators, and so on. Which is why I'm a fan of the mairisch Verlagsblog with it's terrifyingly honest series about what a publishing house actually does. My friends at mairisch have the advantage that they're a small house with a small catalogue, and the disadvantage that they all have day jobs. What they've managed to do is make a blog with a big personality that is always fun to read, albeit with less frequent entries.

It's early days yet for the major houses' ventures into book blogging. I hope they add more exciting posts and interesting ideas, and I hope they're not the kind of projects that require people who don't care about them to provide content, which can over ever end up lacklustre. Certainly, they all look very pretty.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

David Wagner: Mauer Park

One of the things people say to me about once a week is that Berlin must have changed a great deal over the past years. Presumably they say this because it's true, but that doesn't make it any easier to find a sensible response other than, yes, it has.

In 2001 David Wagner published a book of exquisitely composed pieces about places in Berlin, now out of print, called In Berlin. They were written for newspapers between 1998 and 2001. And now he's revised the book and brought it out in an updated version as Mauer Park. What we get is all the original pieces, plus extra material from 2013. Wagner revisits the sites he wrote about in the past and describes them as they are now. An empty restaurant that no longer exists, a settlement for sedate travellers where most of the old crew have moved on but left behind their artefacts for those who took their places, an abandoned slaughterhouse area now converted to homes and shopping opportunities. Or one of my favourites, simply a calm philosophical portrait of the Berlin public transport map, a spider's web with a few new threads added over the past decade. It's a book about the city and now also about change and continuation.

There are a couple of themes, most notably architecture and partying, and it's fascinating to follow cafés, clubs and bars through name changes and changes of address and additions to the menu and new kinds of cups as coffee trends move along – and to ask oneself with Wagner whether the "new Berlin" of the 1990s has passed the taste test. But along with the city, the author has aged. Now his daughter comes into the picture now and then, and he can't quite manage to stifle the odd note of regret and nostalgia, even if it's for things he ridiculed back then. The Café Kranzler was a huge, brassy West Berlin monstrosity full of old ladies eating bad cake, but its replacement is even worse, and those nineties clubs in Mitte that recreated smalltown childhoods, ach!

Two things happened to me while I was reading the book. First of all, I decided I really ought to get out more, as I imagined David Wagner visiting and revisiting the kind of places I rarely take note of – the oasis-like Hotel Estrel planted in its desert of Neukölln scrapyards; Schöneberg cafés; Adlershof! And secondly I got homesick (reading on a plane to London) and then couldn't take the beatific smile off my face at the thought of soon being back in Berlin (on the return flight). The final piece was written specifically for the book, and is about the Mauerpark. It's a serenade to that park full of crazies people now talk about all over the world, and it's full of love and admiration for a city and the people who live in it – and even for the people who just come to visit. Wagner writes with a generosity that goes beyond the gut reflex to hate tourists, a knee-jerk reaction so common here. For him, those visitors are part of what makes Berlin the way it is now.

A while ago I wrote about Anglophone visitors writing about Berlin and perpetuating a certain image of the place, those journalistic pieces citing budding microbrewery cultures and proclaiming that "nobody in Berlin" gets up before the afternoon. That's a Berlin I have never really recognized, as I put it then, but it seems like real people are living there so I've tried to find my peace with it, partly by vowing never to read anything about Berlin that is published in New York. Gideon Lewis-Kraus's essay City of Rumor, as it turned out, I did not hate at all. Possibly that's because it's less an attempt to describe his version of Berlin than an exploration of his – and others' – compulsion to do so. I enjoyed his style (I could hear his voice; it's not one you forget) and the way the essay doesn't pretend to be about issues much larger than the writer's own mind. I feel like it helped me to understand the whole phenomenon.

Yet still, Mauer Park is closer to my version of Berlin. Wagner is a long-term visitor; he grew up in West Germany and moved here as a student, like I did. He has a sharp eye for detail and he understands the city's historical layers, can tell genuine patina from tourist tat – although his affection and subtle humour extends to those who deal in it, like the man on Checkpoint Charlie making no pretence that the Leica he's selling is genuine.

To my great delight, Wagner did indeed write about me writing about him when we went out walking together. All that remains is for me to translate it and the solipsistic cycle will be complete. I hope you'll be able to read some of the pieces from the collection in English fairly soon. The book's late launch (it came out in September) is this coming Saturday at the Roter Salon. I'll be there too. If I'm smiling more than usual it'll be because I'm looking back at years of dancing and posing in one of my own favourite clubs. 

Sunday 17 November 2013

Bremen Literature Prize 2014 to Clemens Meyer

Hooray! The Bremen Literature Prize will be awarded to Clemens Meyer for his amazing novel Im Stein. €20,000 and it won't arrive in his account until the next financial year.

I rather like this little detail from the award foundation's website:
In December 1959 the judges' suggestion to award the Bremen Literature Prize to Günther Grass for The Tin Drum was rejected by the Bremen senate because of the book's "literary description (...) of disgust and sexuality, death and blasphemy".  
That fits Im Stein as well, don't you think?

The award has gone to various greats since 1954: Ilse Aichinger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan, Thomas Bernhard, Christa Wolf, Alexander Kluge, Volker Braun, Peter Handke, Wolfgang Hilbig, Elfriede Jelinek, WG Sebald, Ulrich Peltzer, Reinhard Jirgl, Felicitas Hoppe, Clemens Setz. They now also have a smaller prize for emerging writers, which has also proved to be in good taste, and this year goes to Roman Ehrlich for his debut novel Das kalte Jahr.

Friday 15 November 2013

Maxim Leo: Red Love

There are books that work better outside of their own territories, and Maxim Leo's Red Love seems to be one of them. It is a piece of long-form journalism investigating the author's family history, in the GDR but also under the Nazis and more recently. In Germany, it went fairly unnoticed by the press, perhaps because East German politics aren't considered all that sexy here, or perhaps because it all seemed too familiar. Then in 2011 the book won the European Book Prize. Either it's just me not speaking good enough French, or this is possibly the world's least transparent book award. It seems to be run out of Brussels and it seems to award prizes to essays and to "novels and narratives", with Red Love fitting into the narrative rather than novel category. Whatever the case, in 2011 Julian Barnes chaired the judging panel, and provides the cover quote for Pushkin Press's English version: "A wry and unheroic witness... an unofficial history of a country that no longer exists." I have no idea how he could have judged the German book.

Having made all those provisos, I am in fact glad that Pushkin Press picked up the book and got my friend Shaun Whiteside to translate it – in a solid and capable style, which I'd have liked better if he'd adjusted the tenses more liberally to knock off a few jagged edges. I hope he'll still be my friend after reading this.

Maxim Leo is a journalist from Berlin and approaches his subject with intelligence and tact. His family provides plenty of material, which he distributes evenly across the book. His maternal grandfather was the son of a Jewish lawyer, who left Germany for France early on under the Nazis, having won a case against Goebbels before 1933. Gerhard Leo grew up in France and joined the resistance as a teenager, becoming a communist and a journalist in West Germany and then moving to East Berlin. He's probably the character Maxim Leo is most interested in, especially after viewing his Stasi file. Then there are the author's own mother and father, Anne and Wolf, whose relationships to the East German state are shaped by those to their parents as much as by the circumstances. On the other side there is Werner, Wolf's estranged Stalinist father who has repressed his memories of being a Nazi. Later we catch a glimpse of Anne's maternal grandfather, a member of a communist splinter group murdered in a concentration camp. And finally Maxim himself, who seems to feel dwarfed by all these relatives with their passion for politics, and rejects the GDR mainly for material reasons.

I've been in (East) Berlin for seventeen years now and have heard plenty of family stories. I know that some people have a tendency to whitewash their own histories, to put themselves at the centre of historical moments and to make their roles look more heroic than they really were, and indeed their politics more straight-forward. Leo cuts through this tendency by means of thorough research, reading notes, diaries and files and going through photo albums, always questioning. He makes that discovery process part of the narrative, which is perhaps why I found the book so compelling. And in fact he finds out a number of things that upset his original simplistic view of his family, giving the story a little added tension. It's well-written journalism with a personal touch.

What disappointed me was Leo's almost exclusive focus on the men in the family, with the exception of his mother. I found myself rather drawn to Werner's abandoned first wife, to his second wife and his younger daughter, Maxim's half-aunt. Likewise, I'd be interested to know more about Anne's mother, who somehow survived after her Jewish father was killed by the Nazis but who is strangely invisible beside her larger-than-life husband Gerhard. Certainly I don't remember reading how she and Gerhard met. I realise, though, that one of the achievements of the twentieth century was that women came to lead more interesting lives, in East and West, and perhaps that is embodied in Anne - who is portrayed in the most sympathetic light, with Leo explaining her many political doubts and her inner conflict with the state over the years.

Despite this minor niggle, Red Love provides a nuanced view of political and personal life in East Germany, and is well worth reading for those unfamiliar with the subject. I particularly enjoyed young Maxim's trip to France, where his grandfather introduced him to the kind of communists who live in Mediterranean villas, and his teenage game of pretending to be from the West. When he and his friends make girls cry when "leaving the country", they decide to give it up. The investigative journalism extends even to the author himself.

Friedrich Ulfers Prize to Sara Bershtel

There's a prize with $5000 attached to it, the Friedrich Ulfers Prize, for "a leading publisher, writer, critic, translator, or scholar who has championed the advancement of German-language literature in the United States". And they've announced that the second winner is Metropolitan Books publisher Sara Bershtel. They do indeed have a long roster of German names in their catalogue: Tilman Allert, Götz Aly, Rotraut Susanne Berner, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Joachim Fest, Christoph Hein, Herta Müller. Heavy on the non-fiction but I suppose that's what they do.

More interestingly, the cheque or whatever will be handed over at the Festival Neue Literatur in New York in February. Curated by my friend Tess Lewis this year, it features a lot of writers I think are very good. Please check it out for yourself because it upsets me that I can't go.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Maxim Biller: Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz

I have written before about writer's writers. Bruno Schulz is a prime example of a writer's writer. He led a sad life and then had a spectacularly cruel death, shot in the street by a Nazi, allegedly quid pro quo for the killing of another Jew doing slave labour. He left behind little material but what we do have is remarkable and fascinating. There are rumours of lost work, dispatched in letters and possibly mouldering in attics in the former Austro-Hungarian province of West Galicia. His name is not very difficult to pronounce. What more can one ask? Certainly he's been written about by all manner of American and Israeli novelists. Then of course there is Schulz's contemporary Thomas Mann, a writer's writer with a huge body of work and an even huger reputation.

In his novella Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz, Maxim Biller puts the two of them together and one of them comes off badly. Last night the book was launched with a rather pompous event, more Thomas Mann-style than Bruno Schulz, with two publishers and the writer on stage at the fancy-schmancy Deutsches Theater. I had been putting off writing about the book because I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but I knew I liked it a lot. Now I like it even more.

The plot is based around a factual incident: the Polish author Schulz wrote a short story in German, called "Heimkehr", which we know about from letters but which is lost. He could write in German because his family lived in Vienna for a while before returning home to their small town of Drohobycz. He sent the story to Thomas Mann. Nobody knows if it even arrived or what Mann thought of it, as it isn't mentioned in his diaries. Biller takes this as his starting point.

So we find Schulz in typical desperate novelist mode, writing his letter to Thomas Mann in his cellar study in November 1938. His remaining family is as crazy as the family in Schulz's Cinnamon Shops* and he's working as an art teacher and hating every minute of it, relieved only by visits to the red light district and the thought of being punished by a young lady teacher who adores his work rather too much. It's not pastiche, not at all; Biller's language is not nearly as florid as Schulz's prose. But there are a good few pointers thrown in almost as jokes: Bruno Schulz's pupils turning into birds and shitting all over his study, a Pierrot stuffed with sawdust as a sex toy, and lots and lots of Drohobycz. Biller told us he'd read Doreen Daume's new translation of Sklepy cynamonowe and had trouble with it until he came to the title story*, which he loved. And you can tell, because he's written an affectionate portrait of a very odd fellow and was obviously very interested in his frank attitude to sexuality and masochism.

And then there's the letter. The letter is the most surreal thing about the book. In it, Maxim Biller has Bruno Schulz invent a story, warning the eminent writer in his Swiss exile about someone posing as Thomas Mann in Drohobycz and getting up to all sorts of shenanigans with the local Jews. It begins harmlessly enough but soon escalates into a violent orgy, and finally the fake Thomas Mann turns into an out-and-out Nazi. There are dark hints and deliberate anachronisms, Holocaust symbolism in the wrong time and place. Biller wrote his thesis on antisemitism in Mann's early work and has never let him off the hook since (and indeed, why should he?). He's said he wants to destroy him and he hates the Germans for revering him above all others, despite his dubious attitude towards Judaism and Jews. There's plenty of literature on the subject, including a long and detailed Wikipedia article in German. So while Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz is friendly towards one writer's writer, at its heart it's actually a cutting take-down of another.

Because imagine what he's doing here - it's something fiction can do outstandingly well. Biller has given us a picture of an imaginary Thomas Mann, a double of Thomas Mann, who is actually a sadistic fascist. He hasn't said at any point that the real Thomas Mann was a sadistic fascist, but it's like one of those photos you can't un-see. Here we have a fictional version of the Germans' favourite writer as a ridiculously evil individual. It's quite astonishing. Ultimately, it leads us to two real-life questions: what if Thomas Mann had helped Bruno Schulz to get out of Poland before the Nazis invaded? And why didn't he? I think that may be one of the things the author was most interested in here.

Reading the novella, it's impossible not to side with the underdog Schulz. But Biller talked yesterday about his treatment after his death, the prudish reception of his work. He was rediscovered in the 1960s and translated into German, English and other languages, but his explicit illustrations accompanying the original Polish publication of his interlinking stories weren't reproduced. Five of Schulz's drawings of submissive men and dominant women are included in Biller's book, however.

I found this interesting because it was not an uncommon phenomenon for translations to "clean up" things considered smutty, from sanitized versions of Shakespeare and 1001 Nights to more recent publications, well into the twentieth century. I wondered whether that was one reason why Sklepy cynamonowe was recently re-translated into German. And then I noticed that Biller refers to one of Schulz's characters throughout his own book as Adele, whereas English translations and – I checked – the Polish original call her Adela. It seems that the first German translator domesticated the willful maid so hard he even gave her a German name – not something the character would have put up with, I suspect, had she stepped out of the pages. But then I read, in Adam Thirlwell's Miss Herbert, that Bruno Schulz and/or his fiancée Józefina Szelínska translated Kafka's Der Process into Polish (taking us straight back to Dorothea Tieck, who didn't get credit for her prudish Shakespeare translations either). Thirlwell writes:
In his Polish version of The Trial, Schulz transformed Joseph K** into a Polish counterpart, a double: Joseph became Jurek K. So that the Polish reader could not receive the consolation of the foreign.
And I thought that although Biller had read Doreen Daume's new translation, in which Adela gets her real name back, it was rather fitting that Biller's doubly fictionalized Adela is also her old translated double, Adele.

Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz is a slippery piece of writing in the very best way. As critics have remarked, of course, it takes place primarily in Maxim Biller's head rather than Bruno Schulz's. But that seems to be an interesting place to be.

*In English, interestingly, the title of the story collection was changed to The Street of Crocodiles, highlighting a rather racy piece. I don't know whether this suggests Anglophone readers and publishers are less prudish than their German equivalents or just because Cinnamon Shops sounds even odder than the book already is.

**Joseph K is in itself a more gently domesticated version of Kafka's Josef K. Which goes to show how firmly these domesticated names cling on inside our heads.

Monday 11 November 2013

Seven German Titles on 2014 Impac Longlist

After a nail-biting wait, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has announced its very long longlist. The 152 books have been selected by librarians around the world and include 41 translations. Here are the ones from German:

Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg, trans. Alan Bance

Alex Capus: Léon and Louise, trans. John Brownjohn

Helene Hegemann: Axolotl Roadkill, trans. Katy Derbyshire (me)

Herta Müller: The Hunger Angel, trans. Philip Boehm

Benjamin Stein: The Canvas, trans. Brian Zumhagen

Alissa Walser: Mesmerized, trans. Jamie Bulloch

Juli Zeh: The Method, trans. Sally-Ann Spencer

The shortlist is announced on 9 April 2014 and the winner on 12 June. I am very very excited indeed about this.

Friday 8 November 2013

It Ain't What You Do, It's the Way that You Do It

My lovely journalist and fashion consultant friend Susan Stone has written all about Translation Idol for Deutsche Welle. Enjoy. I know I did. If you'd like to read all the different versions of Deniz Utlu's text they're online too at no man's land (click on the link on the right).

Thursday 7 November 2013

Typographical Translation Award

If I had a list of things that don't matter terribly much in life, the GoodReads Choice Awards would be on it. But they seem to matter to other people, presumably as a large award in lots of categories, voted on by the public. People seemed to be getting piqued that there wasn't a separate category for translations. I mean, I didn't check how the whole thing worked but presumably you could just nominate translated books in the existing categories, if you were that way inclined. But never mind.

I say never mind because it turns out something I do find exciting has resulted from all the hoo-ha. A new grass-roots award for translated titles first published in the USA in 2013, at Typographical Era. Isn't that nice? You can vote at the 2013 Typographical Translation Award page. And yes, that is my friend Isabel's book on the list.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Yoko Tawada/Chantal Wright: Portrait of a Tongue

I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity.
This is the Nabokov quote (from "Problems of Translation: Onegin in English") with which Chantal Wright prefaces her introductory chapter on translating Yoko Tawada's Portrait of a Tongue. Her book is billed as an "experimental translation" and yes, that's what it is. She has divided the pages into two and given us both a translation in the left-hand column and a wealth of annotations on the right, a "translation-with-commentary". There are different types of comments: firstly, what Wright calls "linguistic facilitating" – i.e. explaining what words and issues that crop up might mean in an objective way – then giving citations from other texts (or films, or cultural artefacts) referenced or perhaps referenced or not at all directly referenced in the translation, and thirdly, personal anecdotes. Wright tells us:
Despite the inclusion of this personal response, the translation was never intended to be an exercise in narcissm. Rather, it aims to be a protocol of how a translator encounters a text.
The story itself is a complicated musing on language and culture and customs, narrated by a rather opaque character who is neither German nor American but speaks German and is visiting America. There she meets P, or invents P, a German woman living in America. And she tells us all sorts of things about P – how she behaves in the shower at the swimming pool, the way she phrases certain things, words she teaches the narrator (sometimes forgotten in the meantime, sometimes only alluded to), stories she tells. There's a great deal of comparison of the two languages, something German readers can deal with because they tend to read English well, whereas English readers need more help. As such, it's the ideal text for Wright's exciting project. It's the kind of writing people think of when they use the word "untranslatable", I suspect. And Wright goes right ahead and totally owns it.

Because of course it's an exercise in visible translation. As we read the text on the left, the layout guides us smoothly on to the translator's thoughts on the right, after every few sentences. There is plenty of space on the pages, with paragraph breaks marked separately. It really does feel like you're inside the translator's head as she explains her reading of Yoko Tawada.

Here's one example I find particularly pertinent. I will attempt to explain it afterwards, from my point of view, because I'd like to play Wright's game here just for the fun of it:
P showed me the famous Widener Library. 
We met a friend of P’s there, an American.           
[einen Bekannten There is a clear difference between Bekannte(r) [acquaintance] and Freund(in) [friend] in German that is difficult to uphold in English. The English word “acquaintance” is rarely used these days, whereas Bekannte(r) is used a great deal in German. The English word “friend" can express a variety of degrees of acquaintance, perhaps therefore doing away with the need for other terms. K, a German acquaintance of mine, once introduced his mistress at a party as “meine Bekannte". All parties at the party were party to the deceit.
(I'm afraid I can't reproduce the layout here.)
The reason this is pertinent is that Chantal Wright is a friend of mine. In blogging language we call what I am doing here a full disclosure. I have saved it up for this point for various reasons, including to encourage readers to take this review more seriously than they might have done, had they known about our connection from the beginning.

I met Chantal when she was living in Berlin and I can't remember how, but I think it was about ten years ago. We have been in sporadic contact since then. If I had to describe our relationship in German, I'm not sure which word I would choose. She feels more than a Bekannte and not quite a Freundin. Perhaps I would call her a befreundete Kollegin - a colleague I am friends with. Because of interference from English, I am quicker than many Germans to call people Freunde. Sometimes this makes me expect more of people than they are willing to give.

Later in Tawada's text, the author herself comes back to the subject of words for friends in English and German. She writes:
But in German there is no neue Freundin – at least not for adults – unless it involves a relationship that is both sexual and serious. So if a friend is new, you can't yet know if she really is a friend. That's why there are only old friends in Germany.
Do you see how it all interweaves and reflects back and each side adds something to the other? You may be aware of another, more famous annotated translation making waves at the moment. I've read Jonathan Franzen's The Kraus Project and reviewed it for another publication, which isn't out yet. And although he never mentions Nabokov, Franzen seems to have taken his remark about towering footnotes to heart. The problem is, though, that Franzen's footnotes distract from the translated text. Partly due to the conservative format, the multiple-page anecdotes and explanations accompanying Kraus's essays interrupt the flow to such an extent that they sometimes make them harder to understand rather than elucidating, as I think Nabokov intended. Yes, they call attention to Franzen as the translator – but that high-viz jacket is not terribly advantageous to the reading of Karl Kraus (although the reading experience as a whole is still interesting). To labour that metaphor a little more, Franzen becomes a railway worker standing by the tracks, his bright yellow outfit distracting the train driver from the signals coming up. Does that make sense? I hope so.

Chantal, in contrast, helps the driver (that makes the reader the train driver and the story the train itself, right?) by climbing into the cab and pointing out sights along the way, other trains up ahead, level crossings to slow down for, and so on. Portrait of a Tongue is a rare thing, a genuinely readable exercise in putting translation theory into practice. If you are interested in translation or languages, I urge you to read it.  

Monday 4 November 2013

Another Idea for Emerging Translators

I was talking to someone yesterday about how to get a foot in the door of literary translation. It's not an easy thing to do and requires a lot of patience and persistence. One of the things that has hugely benefited me is our "translation lab" in Berlin. I've written about it before but just to recap: a group of people interested in literary translation from German to English meet up once a month, in our case in a room above a pub, to help each other with our translations. Anyone can come along and bring a page or so of their work (10-12 copies of the original and the translation) for us to go through in the group. Or just come along and join in the conversation. We sit around a big table and eat and drink and indulge in super-nerdy translation talk. Recently, we've also started looking at published translations for purely admirational purposes. I love this part of the evening, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, when someone brings a translation that knocks their socks off and we all say wow. It's an easy way to remind ourselves not to be 100% critical and negative about each others' work, and a great way to learn new tricks.

I've found that talking to other translators about my work is always very very good for the quality of my translations. And that's one of the hard things about emerging - getting practice and experience and getting good at translating. So I'd strongly recommend setting up a similar arrangement wherever you are. It costs nothing except a bit of time, and the rewards are huge. If you want to start your own lab, you could try contacting the cultural institute of the country whose language you translate from. The Goethe Institut, for instance, should be happy to help you, perhaps by providing a room or by sending out an email to people who might be interested.

I'm very pleased that there's now an English-to-German translation lab in Berlin, the Übersetzerstudio, which meets every third Tuesday of the month. There's also a Dublin Literary Translation Lab, which meets on the first Wednesday of the month, 5pm to 7pm, in the Goethe-Institut - and plans are underway for a Glasgow group as of next year.

The no man's land Translation Lab in Berlin meets up on the first Tuesday of the month at Max & Moritz, 8 pm.

Wilhelm Raabe Prize to Marion Poschmann

I might have written about the shortlist, I'm not sure. But anyway, they've announced the winner of another prestigious German literary prize, the Wilhelm Raabe Prize, and the winner is Marion Poschmann for her novel Die Sonnenposition. The book was also shortlisted for the German Book Prize. I read a good chunk of it and appreciated the beautiful language, but the story didn't get me hooked.

Friday 1 November 2013

Help with Emerging

I'm pleased to hear there's now a network for emerging literary translators in the USA, ELTNA. Inspired by the very active British equivalent, ETN, it's an informal group of people who want to get into literary translation but can't yet join a professional association because they haven't yet published a book-length translation. I know a couple of the people behind the ETN and it seems to be a wonderful and mutually supportive thing. It didn't exist when I was at that stage of my career, plus I was in the wrong country, so my informal networks were even more informal. But I wish it had, because talking to other translators has always been key to improving my work and finding out about opportunities.

There are also some more institutional programmes on offer for translators-to-be. The one I imagine to be most awesome is the British Centre for Literary Translation's mentorship programme, pairing translators "with promise rather than experience" with translators with experience and contacts. The application deadline is 11 November. Also in the UK, New Books in German runs its own Emerging Translators Programme, commissioning translations from German from upcoming talents, coupled with a workshop, editing and mutual support. You can also sign up for summer schools at the BCLT and Birkbeck College, which I think are well worth the fees.

Prizes are another good way to pimp your CV - and also give you essential practice at working to a deadline and just plain translating. Practice is what makes you better. Hopefully continuing every two years, there's the German Embassy Translation Award for British translators, which comes with a month's stay in Berlin. The Gutekunst Translation Prize is a similar initiative in the States - although it's only open to under-35s, which I think is a shame because literary translation is something people often get into once they're more mature and have the language skills required. The Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize does the same (open to 18-34-year-olds with any country of residence) but from a different language each year. British residents or citizens of any age can enter poems in translation for the Times Stephen Spender Prize, with a deadline in May. You've missed the 1 September deadline for the Asymptote translation prize Close Approximations, but maybe they'll do it again. But you have until 14 February to submit unpublished translations into English for the John Dryden Translation Prize, no matter who you are.

Sometimes established translators seem to worry that we're encouraging too much competition in a situation where there's not much work to go around. I think that as long as we're realistic about how glamorous literary translation actually is - i.e. not terribly - more people with a passion for it can only be a good thing. I don't think it's a coincidence that the tiny increase in published translations comes with an increase in people enthusing about international literature and our work. In Germany, young translators are few and far between and you can sometimes tell that a book has been translated by someone significantly older than its author. I hope that building a more diverse pool of translators can only benefit the quality of translations, which in turn benefits us all.