Tuesday 31 December 2013

German Book Things That Were Amazing in 2013

2013 was a bit of a bumpy year, not without its frustrations. Lots of great English translations of German books came out, which is A Good Thing around these parts. But based on anecdotal and statistical evidence, I get the feeling publishers have started feeling the effect of the Goethe Institut translation funding cuts (from 70% down to 50% of translation costs). That means that long books are slow to sell to publishers. Nevertheless, I note that German Book Prize winner Terézia Mora's very long Das Ungeheuer has been picked up by Harper Collins/Ecco in the US, who published her Day In Day Out in Michael Henry Heim's translation. No sign of a UK publisher that I can find though.

On a personal level, I had a couple of disappointments. My two favourite German books of the year remain closed to Anglophone readers, as no publisher has got up the courage or the funds to commission translations. And a couple of planned events fell flat because, again, my enthusiasm was apparently not convincing enough for others. A group of us applied for events funding but didn't get it because Berlin is too skint. Plus I couldn't go to the Frankfurt Book Fair and had to sulk at home instead.

Despite the doom and gloom, though, there were some amazing and wonderful things this year. Here's a list, in random order:

Readux Books launched! My lovely friend Amanda DeMarco turned publisher and sacrificed all her time and energy on the altar of teeny books. She's worked so incredibly hard to put together an outstanding programme of beautiful works of literature. Amanda is totally my Publishing Person of the Year.

Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books got the Goethe Medal! We all put on our posh frocks and swanned off to Weimar for the ceremony, honouring special contributions to promoting German culture abroad.

Fiction Canteen started! The lovely ladies at Transfiction now have a warm and welcoming venue for translation-related events in Berlin, and they're not afraid to use it. We kicked off with the return of Translation Idol, which I enjoyed enormously.

The London Book Fair brought together Brits and Americans at the best ever Literary Translation Centre. The place was bursting at the seams, and not just because of the free sandwiches. You can watch videos of all the panel sessions, including one involving me on my 40th birthday.

I overcame my fear of (fellow) expats, partly by teaching a course on contemporary German literature for English-speakers, but also through the lovely people from SAND journal, who ran a translation workshop for under-30s back in April. I'm getting a vibe that English-speakers in Berlin are actually quite interested in translation and German writers, but find it difficult to gain access. I hope we can find ways to improve the situation further in 2014 – I'd love to try bringing together German and English writers on stage, but someone has to give me some money to pay them. Anyway, I've met some delightful and dedicated people and even wrote something of interest to expats with writerly intentions.

There were incredible workshops! I got to work with David "Excellent Writer" Wagner and a generous handful of other translators at a workshop led by Karen "Excellent Translator" Nölle, and I led workshops with the excellent German writers Daniela Dröscher and Tilman Rammstedt. Translation workshops are awe-inspiring things, whether you're participating or running them. May there be many more.

People were talking about translation all over the shop, partly prompted by big-name writers Adam Thirlwell and Jonathan Franzen's respective projects. It feels to me like we translators might piggy-back our way to fame and glory.

To add to the own-trumpet-blowing department, I am very pleased with my occasional extra blog, Going Dutch with German Writers. Strangely, no one had ever thought of going out drinking with German authors and then writing about it afterwards. It's been fantastic fun and has helped me to spend drunken evenings with some wonderful people.

If I had three professional wishes for 2014, I'd like to win a prize, get bilingual literary events off the ground, and translate those two books I loved so much this year. Thank you, literary translation fairy.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Thomas Meinecke: Pale Blue

Thomas Meinecke says of himself that he's a male fag-hag. A gay friend of mine is a Thomas Meinecke-hag. His gender-bending novel Tomboy was apparently a very big deal for my friend. So I decided to read the other of his novels that has been translated into English, Pale Blue. Because I didn't want the pressure of wanting to like a novel because a friend of mine adores it so strongly. I can't explain my choice any better than that.

Pale Blue I can like on my own terms. It's sort of about a German man called Tillmann, a.k.a. Venus, who is writing a theoretical something about music and politics in North Carolina and gets together with a Jewish-American woman called Vermillion, who is writing a theoretical something about ultra-orthodox Jews in New York and femininity. I think. And there's a woman in Berlin called Cordula, who is co-writing the thing with Tillmann and likes deep-sea diving, and is his ex but is now with Heinrich, who is doing something else academic. And then there's Yolanda in Chicago, who's friends with them all and is sort of involved in a three-way exchange of music and discussion with the other two places. And the music is techno but also jazz, and sometimes the musicians are Black and sometimes they're Jewish and sometimes they're "Jewish white Negroes" and sometimes they're Mariah Carey who is Black but isn't. Some of the techno music is radically political underground techno and I don't understand very well how that works other than it's not on major labels and it has messages scratched into the vinyl. One of the jazz musicians is Slim Gaillard, who wrote a dictionary of jive language. My dad met him once. And there are lots of old German submarines sunk off the coast of North Carolina, which divers like to explore. And Ford employed forced labourers in Nazi Germany and ought to pay them compensation; those that survived.

That's what happens. Tillmann and Cordula and Yolanda do their thing and exchange emails and talk about cultural phenomena and Tillmann wears an African tunic that looks like a dress and there's a big storm and they go to visit Williamsburg and look at Jewish people and Cordula comes to visit and then George W. Bush probably gets elected and that's the end. It's hard to tell their voices apart and there's no tension whatsoever and I understood very little of the techno stuff, except for the part when a major label re-records a track in identical form using different musicians and tries to sell it and everyone gets angry. But I found the book totally absorbing. I dipped in most nights and even found I could read it a little bit drunk, which doesn't usually work, because there was no need to remember the plot. I read it very slowly indeed but it still worked.

It worked because I was really interested in the three-way conversation. I was fascinated by the concept of the "Jewish white Negro" in jazz, by white people – well, not "passing" but assimilating themselves into Black culture through music, and by the idea that after WWII, it was no longer Jews but other working-class white boys like Elvis and the Beatles who emulated Black music. And I enjoyed the gentle gender fun between Tillmann and Vermillion, who does his hair and gives him a girl's name and thinks about orthodox Jewish men who can't work because they're studying the Torah so their wives earn the family's living, wearing wigs.

And it worked because we have the internet. Because I could pick up the characters' leads and follow them and look up the music and listen to it at the same time as they did, in my head. Because I could look up the political subjects and see what's happened since 1999, when the book is set. That makes it dated; the characters are sending scans of articles and CDs and letters between each other, which feels almost archaic. I'd like the book to be electronic itself, with links to further reading and with the quotes – there are many, and they're long – highlighted more clearly, and with a soundtrack and pictures of submarines and beaches and New York and the Love Parade and the Robert Taylor Homes. I'd like to imagine the translator, Daniel Bowles, as the central point of an impossible circle of material, all those artefacts splayed out around him in mid-air as he researches the novel. Like a scene out of Matrix with that frozen time effect, only the other way around so that all the months of hard work are visualized in a single moment. I think he did a great job; the English feels fluid but never dull, never stilted but still non-conformist.

And I like the title, the way it resonates with Lou Reed and Rudolf Virchow's plain-speaking scientific proof of the 1880s that there are no differences between non-Jewish and Jewish Germans in terms of skin, hair and eye colour. And at the same time with the colour of Vermillion's jacket and the colour of the sea. And I like the way it picks up or maybe negates a lot of the novel's obsessions with skin colour and identity, making "race" a movable, subtle thing, a thing without a plot of its own, like gender seems to be here too at times. I remember a boy in my class at school whose parents came from Pakistan, and he had pale blue eyes, the very palest I've seen, and very long eyelashes.

So it's not, you know, a well-constructed novel. You don't want to give it to your auntie for Christmas. But you might like to read it yourself, the way you'd spend a rainy day moving from one thing to the next on the internet, coasting. You'd like that.

Drinking with... Annett Gröschner

No, I haven't stopped going out drinking with German writers. In fact, just the other night I went out drinking with the wonderful Annett Gröschner. You can also read my ecstatic review of her Berlin novel Walpurgistag.

Monday 16 December 2013

Books, Covers, Posters

The world is full of so much stuff! Posters of book covers. You can get posters of book covers! In the UK, some people called the Literary Gift Company do a range of posters made of original cover art from novels and plays. In case you want to ruin your eyes with that Bell Jar cover, for example. Then there are some people called Standard Designs, who sell totally groovy posters of album track listings made out of manipulated paperback spines. My favourite is this Björk one. And speaking of albums, someone I know now sells truly fabulous notebooks made out of recycled vinyl records, called Phonoboy.

But the reason I'm telling you this is that if you're in Germany, you can now order the covers of the teeny-tiny books from Readux's first series, only as A1-size posters! Beautiful cover artwork by André Gottschalk to hang on your very own wall. You're welcome.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Adler & Söhne presents: An Evening with the King of China

Dear readers,

Please join us to celebrate the launch of The King of China - Tilman Rammstedt's rambunctious novel, now available in my English translation. Rammstedt and I will present the shiny new book and talk about the writing and translation process, China, grandfathers, narrators and other fascinating things. Feel free to attend in traditional Chinese dress. Books will be on sale and we hope you'll help us wet the baby's head at the bar after the ceremony. They do great Flaming Mai Tais.

Where?  Soupanova, Stargarder Straße 24, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg
When?   Saturday, 11 January 2014, 8 p.m.
Why?      Because January needs a good party.

We hope to see you there!

Katy Derbyshire
About the book:

We meet Keith Stapperpfennig under his desk, his knees padded with washing-up sponges. He’s supposed to be holidaying in China with his eccentric grandfather but that didn’t quite work out, so he’s gone into hiding. And now Keith gets a call telling him his grandfather is dead—and not in China either. Trouble looms on all sides; his brothers and sisters will be angry, his fiancée will be furious. They simply must not find out.
With the aid of a guidebook, Keith writes a series of letters home to his brothers and sisters, detailing their imaginary travels and the bizarre sights they see. All this develops into a heart-warming love story between his grandfather and the fattest woman in the world, while we learn of Keith’s own amorous adventures gone awry and his rather unusual upbringing. Plus of course there’s the real trip to identify the body.

Funny, fast-paced, touching, Chinese—or perhaps not Chinese—Tilman Rammstedt’s novel won him the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2008 and sealed his fame as one of Germany’s most fabulous liars. Mo Yan would love it.

“This novel is like a film by the Coen brothers. . . uplifting in a way unusual in German literature. An entertaining book, not shallow, not smutty, not know-it-all. Simply great entertainment.”

"An enjoyable bit of (unusual) escapism."
The Complete Review

Friday 6 December 2013

Two Uncles or Not Two Uncles

Last night I attended a very open and friendly panel discussion kindly organized by Transfiction, which was about money in the era of digital publishing. The speakers – (digital) publishing people – talked a little about Amazon and their frustration at being unable to work around it. I won’t go into great detail about that except to say that I’m trying harder not to buy books from Amazon now.

What I found most interesting was a discussion about payment models. I asked why e-publishers are using different payment models to print publishers for exactly the same services, i.e. translation and editing. The answer, essentially, was that they don’t have enough money to pay advances.

Volker Oppmann was one of the panelists, and told an interesting story. He set up the publishing house Onkel& Onkel in 2007 with a loan from his two uncles; hence the name. Apparently he paid it back recently after selling his other business, Textunes, to Thalia. My friend Nikola Richter (Mikrotext) said that new publishers don’t have the backlist income that established (print) publishers have, but that small publishers of all kinds pay smaller or no advances. I would argue that this is not necessarily the case in the UK, but we weren’t talking specifically about the UK. And Zoe Beck of Culturbooks said that what e-book publishers are investing is their time, which amounts to money. They’re experimenting to find ways to pay translators (I assume editing is done for free by members of the team) such as 100% royalties up to a certain cut-off point. They’re also, as far as I understand, only commissioning translators for short books.

The situation is difficult for me to deal with, as a professional translator. On the one hand, I’m excited by all these experiments and the idealism with which they’re being undertaken. Nikola pointed out that e-publishers are bringing out books of unusual lengths and with unusual content that otherwise wouldn’t be published at all – although Zoe (an author and translator as well as a new publisher) didn’t reflect on e-publishers’ role in her own point that writers are earning less through royalties now that publishers are bringing out more books. Although I see it as a good thing, more choice, including digital reading matter, means smaller shares of the pie.

On the other hand – and what comes next is not going to make me many friends, I suspect – I see translators as less attached to the literature we produce than the writers themselves are. My work contributes to the quality of the product but it’s not the only factor; the writer thinks up the plot and the characters, for instance. So while it may be acceptable to an author that she will be paid after the fact and depending on how well her book sells, I personally am not willing to take that risk. While my task is a creative one, I am usually commissioned by publishers to translate books they have selected. According to my logic, they should then assume the financial risk for that decision. I personally am not in a position to work without being paid a fixed sum to compensate for my time.

E-only publishing in Germany is at a very early stage. The way I see it, at the moment people are starting their own e-publishing houses with a great deal of enthusiasm but very little capital. It now seems possible to publish without borrowing money beforehand, because the costs of printing, storage and physical distribution have fallen away. And so the other costs – writing, translation, editing, design, etc. – must be got around too, by means of “investing time”.

Again, I’m torn. I think it’s a good thing that people without two uncles willing to lend them money can publish books. But if in doing so, they require others to assume part of the publisher’s traditional risk, my worry is that only those with two uncles willing to subsidize their creative lifestyles will be able to participate further down the line. I say this as a person with three uncles, none of whom is in a position to lend anyone money. And I say it at a time when we’ve actually achieved a situation in which someone like me can make a living, more or less, out of literary translation.

My hope for the future is that e-publishers will end up making enough money to use the payment models employed by traditional publishers. My worst fear in this respect, however, is that traditional publishers will pick up on these new payment models and try to use them too. In my disaster scenario, that would mean that translators (and editors, writers, designers, etc.) without two uncles could only afford to work on books that promised high sales figures. And that would not be good for literature.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Momo Rediscovered

I missed this entirely when it was new, but McSweeney's have brought out a new translation of Michael Ende's forty-year-old children's classic, Momo. It's beautifully illustrated by Marcel Dzama, but what I like best about it is the backstory.

According to a piece in German trade mag Buchreport, 22-year-old Lucas Zwirner knew and loved the book because his German dad used to read it to him as a kid. So he sat down over the summer of 2009 and translated it. I'm not sure whether that means he was 18 when he did it. But either way it's delightful. Zwirner talks about what happened next in a very interesting interview on the McSweeney's website:
Marcel was amazing. I contacted him the summer I finished the translation and he agreed to read it. He liked it and said he would do drawings for it. Once he agreed, I got really excited about the project because it seemed like it might actually happen. Then (surprise, surprise) it took me almost three years to find a publisher. After a number of rejections, Marcel and I got McSweeney’s McMullens involved and despite the long delay, Marcel still agreed to do the drawings. Ende originally did drawings for the book, images that were built into the text. So there were a few drawings—the final drawing of the turtle and the drawing of the children with the posters—that Marcel had to put in because of how Ende wrote the book. But other than that, he had complete freedom. He drew whatever he found interesting or moving. And he did it in his own style, which is exactly what I was hoping for. He has given us a part of his own imaginative process in those images—what he saw when he read the book—and the results are captivating.
It sounds like it was a labour of love all round. My daughter loved the book too, read to her by her own German dad from a strange bootleg paperback from his own childhood. I know what it's about because they made a cartoon series of it that drove me round the bend several years ago. Momo, as far as I recall, turns up out of nowhere with a clever tortoise and makes the world a better place, except that these men in grey are out to make everything more efficient by stealing time. You can see how that might make for an annoying TV series, but I assume the book is less saccharine.

The German original has been re-released in a new hardcover and a retro edition – aimed squarely at parents who once loved it themselves. Michael Ende died in 1995 and is revered pretty much universally in Germany. He came from an artistic family and volunteered as a courier for the resistance in Munich as a teenager at the end of the war. Then he wrote political satire for cabarets and studied Brecht, which plunged him into a creative crisis. Someone asked him to write a picture book for children, which seemed like a good way to escape Brecht's doctrine, and the result turned into the two books Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer and Jim Knopf und die Wilde 13, published in 1960 and 1962. From then on he was a star, wrote plays and moved to Italy and then in 1979 published Die unendliche Geschichte – the film adaptation of which, The NeverEnding Story, was a defining moment in many an eighties childhood. I saw it twice, so it helps me to remember when my parents separated.

Jim Knopf has not aged well, in my opinion. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver was last published in Anthea Bell's translation in 1990, as far as I can find out, and is now fetching about $300 for used editions. During the recent bust-up over racism and changing language in children's fiction in Germany, the books were held up as a shining example of how it's perfectly OK to use the N-word. Ende was indeed an anti-racist and the Jim Knopf stories are parables about how wrong Nazi racial ideology was, as Julia Voss wrote in an excellent FAZ article. Nevertheless, Ende was writing in the late 1950s, in a Germany that was very different to the way it is now, and the very fact that Jim is black and everyone else he meets is not must make the reading experience strange for today's children. Yes, Ende meant well, but he wrote about his abandoned black boy in the language of the 1950s, with all its attendant horrors. Or perhaps it was the dreadful cartoon series that put me off Jim Knopf too.

Whatever the case, I think it's very sweet that Ende's latest translator may well have been named after one of his characters, good old earthy Lukas the train driver.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

no man's land issue 8 out now!

Isabel Cole, Catherine Hales and I have put together our annual exciting selection of contemporary German writing in translation at no man's land. The magazine works by calling for submissions from translators of work that they love, and I like to think that shows when you read it. This year we have poetry from Steffen Popp, Martin Jankowski, Utz Rachowski, Helwig Brunner, Tom Schulz and Volker Sielaff, and prose on big, big subjects by Christoph Ransmayr, Dehe and Engstler, Margarita Iov, Mirko Bonné, Francis Nenik, Carmen Stephan, Michael Buselmeier, Franz Fühmann, Jörg Bernig and Liane Dirk. Many, many thanks to all the translators who devoted their time, enthusiasm and skill to the issue.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Berlin Book Issue

The December issue of Exberliner magazine ("Berlin in English since 2002") is about books, although it doesn't include any reviews. There is a feature on "publishing heroes" though, profiling the literary agent Karin Graf, bookseller Frithjof Klepp, me, e-publisher Nikola Richter, nano-publisher Amanda DeMarco and literary connector Sharmaine Lovegrove. I would like an embroidery of the phrase "publishing hero" to hang on my kitchen wall.

The magazine is available from newsagents and bookshops in Berlin.

Monday 2 December 2013

Franzenesque Footnotes

I wrote a review of Jonathan Franzen's The Kraus Project for The Quarterly Conversation, and they talked me out of my original plan to include footnotes of my own. That was entirely wise of them.

But just in case you feel like printing out the published review and then printing out this post, then cutting them both up with a pair of scissors and guessing where the footnotes would have been, here are the footnotes.

[1] My favourite translation metaphor was provided by the Japanese translator Michael Emmerich at a panel discussion. Asked about the most fitting metaphor for our work, he kept a straight face while telling the audience he favoured the image of a cow, eating grass, patiently and diligently processing the cud through her four stomachs, and in the end producing milk—and manure.
[2] I shall return to this subject later. I thought it important, however, to open this piece with a pithy statement that makes Jonathon Franzen look bad, as this seems to be the standard practice in writing about The Kraus Project.
Hofmann writes: “Franzen doesn’t get everything right: ‘schwerpunktlos’ is not the same as ‘aimlessly,’ ‘sich kosten lassen’ is used in the sense of ‘cost,’ not ‘taste,’ ‘wälze’ is not ‘waltz,’ ‘unschwere’ in context is ‘light’ (unheavy rather than ‘undifficult’), ‘die Hand an die Wange gedrückt’ has Heine pressing his hand to his own cheek, not to Nature’s (he’s a poet, remember), ‘Tor’ means ‘gate’ as well as ‘fool,’ otherwise you don’t get Heine’s joke, ‘der angegriffenen Partie’ is really not ‘the body parts of the persons under attack,’ a ‘Stichwort’ is not a ‘punch line’ but a ‘cue,’ ‘an den Mann zu bringen’ is not ‘finding a mate for,’ ‘gewendetes Pathos’ is not ‘applied emotion’ (which would be ‘angewendetes Pathos’), ‘Phrasen’ are not ‘phrases’ but ‘clichés.’
These things happen in translations; they don’t matter that much.”
[4] Although not through him.
[5] Another Vaudevillian metaphor. 
[7] Of course, all translation is impossible. Kraus’s chewy prose is particularly impossible to put into English, but the premise that any individual could slip into writers’ brains and re-render all the private nuances in their work, identically except in a different language, is ridiculous. Not only because languages rarely overlap conveniently enough to provide exact word matches in terms of meaning, sound and emotional baggage, but also because every reading is coloured by the reader’s own thoughts and experiences. Every reading is an
interpretation, which is why books benefit from re-translations. That’s not to say we shouldn’t translate, or we shouldn’t read translations because they are in some way “impure”. One of the joys of translating is, with Che Guevara, realistically demanding the impossible of oneself.
[8] Paul Reitter tells us the poem is about “the conquistadores’ guileful victory over the Aztecs and the revenge plans of the Aztec god who wants to torment Europe”.
[9] Radio 4’s Front Row, 7 August 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b037v4gb
[10] I assume Kehlmann was either writing or thinking in German, using the term Machtergreifung. Many historians and commentators prefer not to suggest that Hitler “seized” power single-handedly, against the will of the majority of Germans. 
[11] You know Dad doesn’t mean it the way it sounds. He’s an old man, that’s just the way he grew up. He meant it nicely.
[12] There are a few cut corners, and several instances—as Hofmann points out—where even the three contributors admit that the prose is “sub-par”, particularly in the second essay. There are also many rather endearing footnotes essentially saying, nope, we don’t know what this is supposed to mean either.