Monday 31 March 2014

German Literary Translators Reach Joint Remuneration Agreement

It has been a very long time coming, but after numerous government rulings and court cases, the German literary translators' association VDÜ has reached an agreement with a group of publishers on pay.

The agreement states, in essence, that translators should be paid an appropriate fee for their work and sets an absolute minimum fee, a basic fee and a special fee for difficult translations. It specifies additional services such as cutting texts or extraordinary research that shall be paid separately. Most importantly, the agreement provides for a one-percent royalty on every copy sold, not offset against the basic fee. The royalty decreases with higher sales figures and if the publisher goes on to publish a paperback edition. Higher royalties are specified for e-books.

The translators' association and publishers' representatives will meet every two years to discuss whether the basic fees are still appropriate.

This is the most progress that has been made in this area since 2002. On the down side, only six publishers have signed up to the agreement, which is valid as of 1 April. The VDÜ hopes that others, especially the major publishing groups, will join them for the sake of stability. So do I.

Börsenblatt has a report on the press conference, featuring a lot of smiling faces.

Thursday 27 March 2014

Daniel Hahn on Being a Translator

Danny Hahn is a very nice and very busy man, as a writer and translator and general advocate for both professions. Apparently, he found that many of the writers he knew had little idea of what their translators are expected to do. Translators into English tend to be in contact with the living writers we translate, at least to some extent, and in my experience they take great interest in our work and are rather flattered that someone would take the time to do it. But for some reason, that seems to be less the case the other way around. So Danny wrote an article for the British Society of Authors, neatly explaining our curious condition. It's an excellent summary of what makes literary translation a source of both joy and headaches. So many people wanted to read it that they kindly put it online.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Asymptote Global Party

Asymptote Journal is celebrating its third anniversary with a series of events in different countries (hence the title). They made a little video about it. Upcoming things are happening in Shanghai, Philadelphia, Sydney and - hey! - Berlin.

So please join us from 8 p.m. on Thursday, 3 April in the always welcoming Alte Kantine Wedding for an evening of talking about translation. There will be various contributors and we will talk about translation, in English. But after that, there will be dancing. Me and Florian Duijsens will merge into an entity by the name of DJ Slappy Joe Sixpence (named after the ex-husband of R'n'B belter Lavern Baker) and we will play what appears to be called "old-school dirty soul" and I will wear my glittery dress and you will all have to take Friday off work because you will be dancing and having fun until goodness knows when.

Monday 24 March 2014

Damion Searls, Double Nominee

You've noticed already, but of course Damion Searls is nominated twice over for the Best Translated Book Award in the fiction category, for Elfriede Jelinek's Her Not All Her and for Christa Wolf's City of Angels. I have them both, so I already know he's a very talented and ingenious translator - particularly as the Jelinek play demands a lot of tying and untying of knots.

Typographical Era is focusing on all the translators and has a short profile of Damion with a link to an interview he gave for BOMB magazine. Congratulations, Damion!

The award itself is up for an award to be awarded at the London Book Fair. The award is sadly unable to attend.

Monday 17 March 2014

Saša Stanišić: Vor dem Fest

I have been busy, and away, and the away part was at the Leipzig Book Fair, where the big fiction prize of the spring went to Saša Stanišić for his second novel, Vor dem Fest. And everyone was very pleased because it's a wonderful book made up of what feels like hundreds of stories about a village in rural East Germany on the eve of the local festival. And now I've just this minute finished reading it and am still away with the fairies – who don't come into it, although there are ghosts and angels and eloquent ferrymen and characters dead and alive and real and invented.

What is it about? It's about the people who live in the village, and all of them are odd but then aren't we all, and they narrate the story in a strange fourth-person voice that opens the novel with a "We are sad" and closes it with a puzzling "we bid twelve". They don't all live in the village at the same time because some of them are from the past and some of them just live in the past, and some of them speak in rhymes and some of them would kill for a cigarette. Some of them are good with their hands and some of them have talents that don't come in very handy but count for something nonetheless.

You might be familiar with Stanišić's debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, which was a big hit for good reason and was also ultimately about telling stories and about place. One of the most impressive things he wrote between then and now was a piece published at Words Without Borders, "Three Myths of Immigrant Writing", in which he explores expectations of writers who originally come from other countries or languages to the ones they write in. He explodes the following three myths: Firstly, that there is such a thing as an "immigrant literature" as a homogenous category. Secondly, that writing by immigrants is necessarily about the immigrant experience, intercultural phenonema, etc. And thirdly, that exophonic writers enrich their chosen literary language in a way that "native speaker" writers do not. Please read the whole article because all of his points are valid and worth taking note of. As far as I'm aware, people are beginning to do so – I'm seeing university courses on things like "Turkish-German narratives" rather than "literature by foreigners" and fewer panels on which writers are required to dissect the influence of their ethnic background on the language of their writing. Or maybe I've stopped paying attention.

Bizarrely, the arrival of these ideas in the mainstream was confirmed for me by the reaction to a recent article by Maxim Biller, himself born outside of Germany. Being thoroughly fed up of (male) writers slagging off other writers and telling them how to do a better job by writing more like they do themselves, I didn't actually read the article, but I understand the gist of it was that it was cowardly or sycophantic or in some way incorrect for an immigrant writer to write about a village in rural East Germany. Anyway, everyone else (including the Leipzig judges) leapt to Stanišić's defence and said hey, anyone can write about anything they bloody well like, mate, as long as it's good. And the judges at least seem to have taken care not to say that Stanišić enriches the German language with his adorable little outsider's linguistic quirks, bla bla bla. I haven't read any reviews though, so maybe lazy critics are still saying that but never mind. The point seems to have hit home to some extent. And I don't think he got the award for that reason either, but simply because Vor dem Fest is an excellent book.

I don't really want to tell you much more about the book because in a way I'd like to keep it to myself for a little while, all private inside me. But I will, because I think as many people should read it as possible. There's a village called Fürstenfelde, which is based on a number of villages with similar names where the writer spent some time researching the novel. It has a lake but the ferryman has died, and it has a village museum with an archivist who likes to watch Buffy, and a church with a born-again vicar and a new bell ringer. It has a bakery but no pub any more, so the men meet up to drink in a lock-up garage where they wash their own glasses. A lot of the people who live there are old and a few of them are young but they may not be staying. And Stanišić tells us what happens in the 24 hours or so prior to the village festival. He uses incidents from the present day but also intersplices individual characters' memories, historical documents of dubious provenance and local myths. Along the way all the elements get swirled around and tangled up.

I've seen Stanišić read from the novel a couple of times, and he always enchants his audience with the spiralling stories and their quiet humour. On one occasion before publication, the crowd laughed too much and he commented to his editor that he'd have to take that bit out. Now, Vor dem Fest is odd in the kind of way that is still making me smile as I write this, but friendly to all its characters. At the same time, that smile is a melancholy one because the village is probably going to die out. The book is also spattered with sentences that shine like aphorisms but may also be ironic: "For the strong, every place is home" – "Those who don't venture beyond reality will never conquer the truth" – "The GDR won't die while the last GDR hairdryer is still drying hair". Like in his debut, Stanišić plays around a little with kitsch but is never mean about it. I'm so glad he wrote this book.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Tim Mohr on Translating Why We Took the Car

The American translator Tim Mohr has a big hit on his hands with Wolfgang Herrndorf's novel Tschick/Why We Took the Car. He was kind enough to answer my questions via email.

To start with, tell us how you started off as a translator. Was it a lifelong ambition?

It was more like a lark. I spent many years as a DJ in Berlin and learned German (among a lot of other things) during that time. Then I decided to change gears and try working as a writer in New York. I started working for Playboy magazine, but I still felt I owed a sort of debt to Berlin for all that I'd taken away from the city and wanted to try to facilitate in whatever small way I could the flow of ideas between the US and Germany. You have to remember the landscape was totally different ten years ago than it is today--back then Berlin hadn't yet cemented its place as the coolest city on earth (even though I thought it was) and there weren't things like Nein Quarterly and Schottenfreude trading on the cool factor of German; also, many of the English-language publishers who specialize in literature in translation did not yet exist. It was always an uphill battle back then to explain to people--even in New York City--why I was so enthusiastic about German music and literature, and Berlin. So long story-short, while still working for Playboy I started writing reader's reports and doing sample translations on the side for German publishers trying to sell their English language rights to US presses. One thing eventually led to another, though that wasn't originally my goal and actually even once the idea of translating an entire book began to intrigue me I thought for a long time I'd never get the chance.

And how did you come to translate Tschick?

In the end it was a happy coincidence. I had read it soon after publication and loved it. Just loved it. In fact I wrote a reader's report about it--something I wasn't doing much of at the time--because I wanted so badly for it to get picked up for English publication. But it didn't happen. Then a few years go by and I answer my phone one day and it's Emily Clement, an editor at Scholastic who has just acquired the rights. It turned out she had read my translation of Broken Glass Park (Scherbenpark) by Alina Bronsky and thought I might do well with the voice of Tschick. I couldn't believe it. She had never seen the readers report I wrote years before and had no idea I was a huge fan of the book. 

Can you remember your favourite scene in the novel?

I like different sections for different reasons. My favorite scene to translate was the discussion over whether or not Walachei is a real place or not, which meant having to come up with all sorts of English equivalents to things like "JWD" and "in der Pampa." As a reader I like the sections where Herrndorf's tenderness toward his characters--the quality that seems to define the tone of the novel--shines through. Off the top of my head, I think of the scenes with Mike and his mother, Mike's sardonic descriptions of school life, and the scene at the reservoir where Mike gives Isa a haircut.

Tell us about your typical working day - and my new favourite question: what does your desk look like?

I'm usually working on several things at once--I also help music celebrities write their memoirs--so my days can be wildly different. Once in a blue moon there are weeks when I'm flying around the world with a rock band, and then there are many, many more weeks when I'm working around the clock at my apartment, breaking up my day with trips to the coffee shop to read the paper for a little while. When I'm at home I don't use a desk--I work while standing in front of the (unlit) fireplace. I just plop my laptop down on the mantel. There's also a set of speakers there so I can blast music. I like noise when I work.

The English version is published by the children's book publisher Scholastic in the US, while the original was marketed to adults as well as teen readers, in two different editions. Did you approach it differently to your other translations because of the different target group?

I think this is largely a misconception due to the difference between children's publishing in the US and Europe. Here whether you are published as young adult (YA) or adult is an almost meaningless distinction. There's a lot of literary authors who launch their careers via YA here, and the market for ostensibly YA books here is largely adult. It's not just Hunger Games and Twilight that sells to adults, a lot of more literary YA stuff does as well. Given the age of the characters, I thought Tschick was best served being published this way in the US--I had suggested that from the time I did that initial reader's report. And there are no boundaries in YA as far as foul language or sex and drugs or whatever else you might think would be problematic for children's publishers. I didn't have to think about toning things down at all while working on the book, and Scholastic didn't push for any alterations once it was done, either.

I don’t know how well Wolfgang Herrndorf was when you were working on his book. Did you communicate or was everything straight-forward? Are you one of those translators who likes to consult the writer or do you want to retain control all for yourself?

By the time the rights were bought for English translation, he was nearing the end of his life. I didn't discuss the work with him, though I know he liked the English title. Although I should add this wasn't much of a change for me--generally speaking I'm not big on collaborating with the author. I'm more likely just to send a handful of queries. Though I recently worked directly with Stefanie de Velasco on her Tigermilch and found the experience surprisingly effective and, perhaps more surprisingly, painless. Even fun. I always expect it to be a hassle to work with the author, particularly because so many of mine have had excellent English. Fortunately none has been inclined to micromanage the translation.

I really like the title and as you say, Herrndorf did too. I remember you had a tricky time deciding on the title for Charlotte Roche’s second book, which ended up being Wrecked. How did “Why We Took the Car” come about?

Credit for this has to go to Emily Clement, the editor at Scholastic. I didn't even have a working title as I translated it. I really disliked a few titles suggested by the publisher, but then Emily saved the day by coming up with this one. Normally I take the lead on title, but this was an area where maybe the fact that it was published as young adult made a difference--I was wary of trying to figure out an effective title and figured Scholastic would have a better grasp of how to reach their audience.

When you and I talked to Herrndorf’s German editor Marcus Gärtner in Berlin, he pointed out a scene where he really liked your solution. The German word “Wetterleuchten” doesn’t have an equivalent in English - it means the reflected light of a thunderstorm - so you have a church tower actually struck by lightning. That’s a pretty radical change but I have to say it works for me, too. How respectful are you towards the original? Is it even a question of respect for you or do you think in other terms about your work?

Well, I'm definitely not the type of person to consider any given word sacrosanct. I guess I spent too many years as a magazine editor for that. But I also think my style of translation affects how I approach a problem like the one you've pointed out. For me, translation is something musical. I'm trying to recreate in English--in a highly unscientific, impressionistic way--the melody of the original, almost like transposing a song from one instrument to another or from one arrangement to another. Which is one of the reasons I take some liberties like simplifying "Wetterleucten." Sure, I could explain the phenomenon of "Wetterleuchten" in English even if there isn't an equivalent word, but to do so would change the melodic quality of that passage and detract from the overall musical cohesiveness.

I love the way you’re so good at capturing the voice of the original. How on earth do you do it?
I'm not really sure, though my work as a ghostwriter or co-writer (or whatever you want to call it) is predicated on something similar. Maybe I'm just a good listener, even though when it comes to translations I'm listening to words on a page? 

What are you working on right now?

I just finished two projects back to back: Stefanie de Velasco's Tigermilch and Alina Bronsky's Nenn mich einfach Superheld. I'm trying to figure out my next move. The memoir I worked on with KISS frontman Paul Stanley comes out next month, so I'll spend some time enjoying that. Slightly bigger crowds at those events.

I always have a backlog of fantasy translations that nobody ever wants to publish. Is there a book you’ve always wanted to do?

Yes, though I found out a few months ago that Seagull is publishing it: Rummelplatz by Werner Bräunig. For a while I was also considering trying to put together a compendium of classic early-20th century German-language reportage--as a former magazine editor I find the origins of what in essence became the magazine feature quite intriguing, and American audiences don't know the stuff. Though I might possibly have other ideas up my sleeve...

Thanks again to Tim for the insights!

Monday 10 March 2014

On Christa Wolf's "August"

Last year I had the great pleasure of translating Christa Wolf's last piece of writing, the story "August". I was very proud and also very nervous, because I (foolishly, perhaps) thought it would be the kind of book people would actually read and review. So to calm me down, I wrote about the experience. The translation came out last month from Seagull Books and the essay that came about as its by-product is now online at The Quarterly Conversation.

Friday 7 March 2014

In which I go out drinking with Felicitas Hoppe and get in the newspaper

I went out drinking with the fantabulous German writer Felicitas Hoppe. Also, before you click the link and get a big shock, Going Dutch with German Writers has moved house to the Berliner Tagesspiegel newspaper. It's a very good newspaper, as you can tell by the fact that they are letting me write a monthly piece about going out drinking with German writers. In fact it's so good that there's a special page all about Going Dutch with German Writers in tomorrow's print edition.

Apart from the new address and snazzier surroundings, the series itself will stay the same. I will probably be more motivated to take photos though, because otherwise I'll get in trouble. I'm very pleased indeed.

Julia Franck and Birgit Vanderbeke Longlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

The headline rather says it all: two German books are among the fifteen titles nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. They are:

Julia Franck: Back to Back (trans. Anthea Bell) - a moving story of a brother and sister growing up in East Germany, whose mother is not all that motherly, as I recall,


Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast (trans. Jamie Bulloch) - which is a bit of a modern-day classic that I still haven't read. Silly me.

Good luck to all four candidates!

Thursday 6 March 2014

Spanking Sibylle

The author-translator relationship has always been a tricky thing, for me. A translator reads so intimately, spending months inside the very guts of each book, that it can feel as though we know the writers rather than their work. We don’t, of course, because the writers aren’t involved in the process, only their words. It’s a huge disparity, this imbalance of knowledge. 

I’ve written about it before, based on this quote from Richard Howard:
The relationship of the translator to the writer is an erotic relationship always, and you learn something about the person that you’re working with in an almost plastic, physical way that you can almost never learn about your friends.
Yet what Howard doesn’t mention is that the relationship is almost entirely one-way, unrequited. There are writers I've been translating for a long time (not necessarily for publication), who feel like beloved old spouses whose tics I've grown accustomed to, there are some who I've fallen out of love with, most I delight in, and every new writer comes with a frisson of excitement. And those first meetings! Every single time, such high expectations and then such aching disappointment, like a bad date.

One of the worst moments is when they don’t seem grateful enough. A German book in English is unlikely to make anyone rich, but it will get the writer invited to exotic and desirable locations. It will also frequently get the writer’s book translated into other languages, which is no doubt also good for the ego and the travel anecdote collection. Of course writers may be unaware of how much effort translators put into getting certain books published, or they may assume that publishers the world over were already aware of their work and would have snapped it up regardless. Translators are prone to a kind of petulance at being overlooked and underappreciated, I think, and I am no exception.

I was telling a friend about the difficulties as I see them, and she commented that it all sounded rather Downton Abbey. With me as the below-stairs staff and the writers as the upstairs lords and ladies. In the most extreme cases, I have all this intimate knowledge about people who are only peripherally aware of my existence. I make my living by providing a service, something that takes years to learn and skill to perform, but that is sometimes taken for granted by the people I serve. I am exaggerating, but that’s how it feels at times.

I told a writer I’ve translated about the Downton Abbey comparison and she sympathized. But, she pointed out, her mother had always responded to being dismissed as a housewife with a Goethe quote:
Dienen lerne beizeiten das Weib nach ihrer Bestimmung!
Denn durch Dienen allein gelangt sie endlich zum Herrschen,
Zu der verdienten Gewalt, die doch ihr im Hause gehöret.
Ellen Frothingham rendered it as:
Early a woman should learn to serve, for that is her calling;
Since through service alone she finally comes to the headship,
Comes to the due command that is hers of right in the household.
At the time it comforted me; perhaps the servants and housewives of the world, through serving, do have power over others. But now it’s not helping matters. I don’t want to be a conniving, scheming, unhappy Miss O’Brien. Not that I want to be above stairs either, but still. It all ties in with Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation, as far as I remember, in which the translator is eternally connotated as female because of her invisible, serving role.

But there it is. Although in my case they’re the exception, there are author-translator relationships that really don’t deserve the term “relationship”. And yet, my name is tied to their names and when I read their names I am interested in what they have to say. So when a writer I have translated comments publicly that copulation is something that ought to happen between men and women for the purpose of procreation and that it would be wise to ban masturbation and that she is inclined to consider children created by artificial insemination “semi-creatures”, “half human, half artificial I don’t know what”, especially if they’re born to lesbian mothers, and in the same speech compares the Nazi Lebensborn programme favourably with artificial insemination – when that happens, I am as ashamed as I would be if that writer were a relation of mine. Of course, every right-minded reader in Germany is up in arms that an award-winning writer could push such a fundamentalist agenda, and the kindest conclusion is that the writer herself is not in her right mind. Perhaps the only consolation, for me, is that said writer is one of the few of those I’ve translated who probably doesn’t even remember my name.

So this is my way of stepping discreetly out from below-stairs and distancing myself. I don't know if it's the right way to go about it.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Berlin Book Lovers

You may remember I was a bit frustrated by the whole internet dating experience. And I'd been thinking for some time how great it would be to have a website for getting in touch with other culture vultures. Strangely, nobody dashed to my aid and invented one, so I have done so myself.

So I hereby present Berlin Book Lovers. It's a non-commercial contact site for people in Berlin who love books. I've kept it very, very simple. All it consists of is professional photos of people with their favourite book, with a contact form if you'd like to write to them. It's not actually a dating site as such, because a lot of people said they already had a partner but they'd still like to be part of it. So, you know. If you'd like to swap books or go for a coffee with anyone, drop them a line. Or whatever.

If you're in Berlin you can join in as well. The next photo session is on 15 March. Get in touch via the "Join" page on the website itself if you can make it. The very first round of photos, i.e. at that session, will be free. At all photo sessions after that you pay a one-off fee of €25 to cover the photographer, but you do get to keep the fabulous picture of yourself with your favourite book.

I chose the title because it's infinitely expandable. So if people in Buenos Aires want to do the same thing they can set up Buenos Aires Book Lovers. Or if film buffs in Berlin want to do the same thing they can set up Berlin Film Lovers. You get the point. If you want to do something similar, do let me know via the "Join" page as well, and I'd be happy to offer help and advice.

I'd like to thank the wonderful photographer, Anja Pietsch, and all the friends who've helped out with ideas and criticism. I'm eternally grateful to my delightful models, who are waiting for you to contact them as we speak. And especially, I'd like to thank Klaus Kowalke from the bookshop Lessing und Kompagnie, whose beautiful tumblr site gave me the idea, and who was totally gracious about me blatantly stealing it.  

I hope you like it.