Friday 30 May 2014

Georg Büchner Prize to Jürgen Becker

Germany's most important literary award for a writer's entire oeuvre, the Georg Büchner Prize, this year goes to Jürgen Becker. You can read several of his poems at Lyrikline, in German and English (tr. Catherine Hales). The press is rather nonplussed, like myself, because although Becker has been writing for a very long time (he was born in 1932), not many journalists seem to have read his work. Apparently he began with experimental fiction and then moved on to poetry and journals and in 1999 did publish a novel. The judges praised his precise language.

I must admit I haven't read his work. His fellow writer Jochen Schimmang explains why he likes it in the taz (although the piece does include a dig at a popular historian, who "probably wouldn't understand" Becker's poems, which is not one of my criteria for poetry). The Welt critic Tilman Krause, on the other hand, isn't quite as keen and sees the choice as a sign that the academy that awards the prize is full of old-fashioned ancient men (my phrasing) who want to reward the last vestiges of modernism. Becker, who told a news agency he was very surprised by the unexpected honour, will receive €50,000.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Reason to be Cheerful: Navid Kermani

These have been dark days for me. Europe has built in an extra hurdle for its citizens to vote in their countries of residence rather than origin, catching me out and rendering me disenfranchised (in conjunction with my own stupidity), while one annoying newspaper editor managed to vote twice. Then the election results came out and I was horrified that enough people in the UK are so strongly against Europe that they'll vote in a bunch of racists with pretty much only one policy: leaving the EU. Of course fewer people voted for them in local elections, because who wants to be actually governed by a bunch of racists with only one policy? But 27% of bother-to-voters are happy to send them to Brussels. I've been resident outside of the UK too long to vote there now, which means that I and many of my British friends here won't have a say in any referendum on leaving the EU. So I'm taking a friend's advice and applying for German citizenship, shocked into it by these horrifying election results.

Not that Germany is the promised land. A neo-Nazi got voted onto the Dortmund city council, and his mates physically attacked the other parties to celebrate. And Germany's Eurosceptics, the horribly elitist, neoliberal Alternative für Deutschland, will have seven seats in the European parliaments.

So I need a reason to be cheerful, and that reason is the writer Navid Kermani. He holds two passports, one German and one Iranian, and was last week announced as this year's recipient of the Joseph Breitenbach Prize, Germany's most lucrative literary award. It comes with a massive €50,000 – almost two months' pay for an MEP. The judges state that the award is mainly for his 1232-page novel Dein Name, which I haven't read. What I have read, however, is his shorter books Kurzmitteilung, Wer ist wir and Große Liebe. I wrote about Wer ist wir here, and I absolutely adore Große Liebe. It's the story of the narrator's first love, at the age of fifteen in 1980s Cologne, with all the teenage angst, embarrassment and enthusiasm that goes with the territory. But it's also about love and sex in medieval Islamic literature. Yes, they work together. Kermani uses looping repetition to emphasize important ideas – almost a Thomas Bernhard-like quirk that brought a smile to my face. Perhaps inspired by the medieval poetry, his language bounces cleverly between high kitsch and banality, creating delightful moments of bathos. And the German critics loved it too.

Also last week – a good week for Navid Kermani, who is currently a visiting professor at Dartmouth College – held a speech in the Bundestag marking the fiftieth anniversary of the German constitution. If you read German, please read it. It's a truly beautiful celebration of the utopian elements of the basic law, and a condemnation of where they are not upheld, particularly the 1993 adjustments to the article granting asylum to victims of political persecution. I shall give you a quick translation of the final paragraph. See if it makes you cry too, after the past weekend.

And so I would like to speak by proxy at the end of my speech, and in the name of - no, not in the name of all immigrants, not in the name of Djamaa Isu, who hanged himself by a belt almost exactly a year ago to this day in the Eisenhüttenstadt reception camp out of fear of being deported to a so-called third country without consideration of his asylum application, not in the name of Mehmet Kubasik and the other victims of the National Socialist Underground, who were defamed as criminals by the investigating authorities and the country's major newspapers for years, not in the name of even one Jewish immigrant or returnee, who can never consider the murder of almost his entire people overcome – but in the name of many, of millions of people, in the name of the guest workers who long since stopped being guests, in the name of their children and children's children, who grow up with two cultures as if it were the most natural thing in the world and now also with two passports, in the name of my fellow writers, for whom the German language is likewise a gift, in the name of the footballers who will give everything for Germany in Brazil, even if they don't sing the national anthem, and also in the name of those less successful, those in need of help and even those who break the law, who nonetheless – just like the Özils and Podolskis – are part of Germany, and also in the name of the Muslims who enjoy rights in Germany that, to our shame, are denied to Christians in many Islamic countries today, thus in the name of my religious parents and an immigrant family now numbering 26 members, I would like to say, symbolically bowing down at least as I do so: Thank you, Germany.

Friday 23 May 2014

Berlin Wonderland

Last night was the first presentation of Berlin Wonderland, a book about what happened in Berlin immediately after the Wall came down, subtitled "Wild years revisited 1990-1996". It's a photo book, mainly, featuring many previously unpublished pictures by people directly involved in filling the cultural vacuum created in the middle of the city. All black-and-white, the photos show a place so different to Berlin-Mitte now that it's hard to believe they were taken only twenty years ago. Many of the area's houses looked like ruins, Tacheles of course being the prime example. And there were squats and makeshift bars and art made of fighter planes, abandoned cars and, yes, wild years.

The photos almost speak for themselves, but the book also gives us very brief statements from what it calls "protagonists" - artists, squatters, musicians, people who came to Berlin especially to experience what was feasible here and people who grew up here and knew their way in and out of the vacant buildings. And these are what made me shiver with excitement - people felt that anything was possible, in a time and place between states, between nation states and political systems but also almost between solid and liquid. It wasn't a safe place; we learn about fires and fascists, people who died or committed suicide. But it was a place where things could get done without worrying about where to get funding or how to pay the rent, and the protagonists were young and carefree, it seems to me.

I was here for some of that time but in a different world, doing different things, and I was younger. Reading the book, seeing the photos on screen at the event, accompanied by a performance on an analogue synthesizer, I felt most of all the wish that I'd been part of it all. It was tough to be surrounded by people who knew each other from those days, sighing over the pictures, chatting and drinking and smoking afterwards and blocking the pavement outside ocelot on the first sweltering night of a long summer, and not to know them. I went for a walk to compare and contrast - ach, Berlin - and then went back and bought the book.

The makers, bobsairport, run a photo agency and started out, they said, by looking for a publisher for the project. But no one wanted to commit so they've done it themselves, in wild years style. Except of course it's not a photostat fanzine with grainy pictures – it's a gorgeous piece of design, distributed by Gestalten. Because these enthusiastic kids have grown up; the bios at the back of the book tell us that most of them are still playing a major role in Berlin's culture, from journalism to dance to sound engineering.

Berlin Wonderland is a treat, to be read by guttering candlelight on rooftops or between piles of rubble by the roadside. The text is in German with a fine English translation by Wilf Moss, plus an introduction by my friend David Wagner. He wasn't there last night, too busy receiving the first ever organ donation award for his book Leben.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

The Translator as Background Singer

On various occasions, I've spurned the idea of the translation metaphor. Translation is a skilled and artistic task in its own right and deserves to be regarded as such, so I'm wary of comparisons with ventriloquy, thespianism, ferry-operating, and so on. Last night, however, I watched a documentary that changed all that for me. Yes, I have finally found my translation metaphor.

The film in question was Twenty Feet from Stardom, the deserving winner of multiple awards. It's a bitter-sweet look at the careers of a number of background singers, from the first black women in the profession in the late 1950s to the young people following in their footsteps today. These are inspiring women who sing like you wouldn't believe, wear sparkly dresses and wigs, and love what they do. They've also been exploited like you wouldn't believe, from Darlene Love hearing her own voice passed off as other people's under Phil Spector, to their still largely anonymous role. Can you think of a famous backing singer? It doesn't count if she's famous for having an affair with a rock star. Nowadays there is less work for background singers because people are cutting corners, recording at home and tuning vocals electronically after the fact.

But think of some of the most amazing songs in pop history, and imagine them without background singers. Bowie's "Young Americans" would be a thin dirge (watch that video to see a young Luther Vandross in a polyester suit), Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" wouldn't make sense, and Ray Charles might as well have given up entirely. These women share stages with some of music's greats, they adapt what they do to suit each situation, and they get enormous joy out of their creative work.

One of the most moving aspects of the documentary was the fact that some of the women it portrays tried to launch solo careers and failed. In some cases it was bad luck or bad management to blame, but it was never down to a lack of talent. A few of the talking heads mentioned background singers' lack of ego. They're used to standing aside, literally not hogging the limelight, and there was a sense that this quality meant they weren't big enough divas to make it on their own. And this was what made me pick up on the similarity with translators once and for all. To be happy as a backing singer, it seemed to me, you have to appreciate the good parts about not being a star.

To labour the point, translators are writers but not writers. We make books work in another language, we do the same thing as writers in terms of choosing the right words for the right moment, but we're not the people who created the book. Our work adds texture and depth - imagine if Günter Grass had written The Tin Drum in English; it would be like "Young Americans" without Luther Vandross. And while we insist that our role is acknowledged, I'd argue that we're not the biggest divas in the literary world.    

Ultimately, the translation metaphor can only go so far. We work at computers with books, not in studios and rarely on stages. But I'm happy to have found a comparable profession with a good portion of glamour to it. I don't write fiction and I don't intend to; I get enough pleasure and creative satisfaction out of translating outstanding writing originally produced by others. But I'd be happy to take someone like Darlene Love, who worked on probably thousands of awesome records and then built a solo career in her own right, as a role model. I have a sparkly dress and I'm not afraid to wear it, given the right occasion.

Monday 19 May 2014

Plan D Shortlisted for CWA International Dagger

The shortlist for the British Crime Writers Association's International Dagger award was announced on Friday night. Rather excitingly, it includes a German book that I personally translated, Simon Urban's Plan D. The novel is a detective story set in a fictitious present-day East Germany, in which the Berlin Wall is still up. The International Dagger award has existed since 2006 and has never gone to a German book, partly because it is usually awarded to Fred Vargas and her translator Siân Reynolds. They are indeed very good. The author receives £1000 and the translator £500. The winners of a whole slew of awards are announced at a swanky London ceremony on 30 June. I haven't been invited so far, but maybe these things take time. Or maybe I just won't go.

I'm not expecting my book to win because it's up against some very tough competition, including Fred Vargas/Siân Reynolds and the meta-crime novel The Siege by Arturo Perez-Reverte/Frank Wynne. So I'm going to take this opportunity to tell you how the novel got on the list in the first place.

The first step was when the German publishers Schöffling Verlag commissioned me to translate a sample chapter. The people who work in Foreign Rights often use different translators for these samples - which they use to try to sell translation rights around the world - depending on who they think would be right for the job. In this case, they second-guessed my taste very well and I was very keen on the style. I was then asked to write a reader's report on the whole thing for New Books in German magazine, and that turned out equally enthusiastic. On that basis, the German Book Office in New York asked me to talk in front of camera (at the Frankfurt Book Fair) about the book for one of their rather good videos. Armed with all this ammunition, I suggested the book to an editor at Harvill Secker. She liked the idea, bought the rights, and promptly quit the job.

So I translated the book for another editor, who specializes in international crime fiction. It took about four months of intensive work, which I enjoyed immensely. Unusually for me, I didn't have a great deal of contact with the writer, as he's in Hamburg and was working long hours in an advertising agency at the time. He's since also quit and published his second crime novel, Gondwana. So we had one long phone call to clear up my questions at the end of the translation process, although I didn't have all too many. The biggest challenge and the greatest joy was probably capturing the rhythm, with Urban's sentences often running on for whole paragraphs. I left most of them as they were - if you don't like them, buy a different book. But of course there were also the difficulties of guessing what aspects of long-gone East German society British readers would understand and which needed subtle explaining. Plus the real-life characters, for which I produced an explanatory list that was used at the back of the book. Some of them were expunged from the English version for legal reasons but I wasn't really party to that process.

So then the book came out in the UK and didn't get quite as much attention as it had in Germany. Apparently it was reviewed in the Financial Times but I didn't see that. Some bloggers responded well, some less so. The Amazon reviews tend to blame me for their not liking it, but are kind enough not to mention my name. Part of the problem may be the description: "A modern-day Cold War thriller: Robert Harris's Fatherland meets John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." This is pretty inaccurate - actually the novel is more literary than these examples and was inspired much more strongly by Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. So if readers are expecting plain, clean, entirely plot-led crime writing they are indeed likely to be disappointed.

Never mind. Harvill Secker submitted Plan D for the award regardless and I'm thrilled that it was one of six titles chosen out of sixty-four entries. The CWA calls it a fine debut and writes: "This novel impressed with its ambitious, wide-ranging counterfactual history of two Germanies in which nothing happened in 1989. In this East Germany, everyday life under dictatorship requires remarkable navigational skills, which Wegener, the detective, does not always possess. Urban’s evocation of grimy corruption is punctuated with wit, not least in the conclusion." I hope the nomination helps get more positive attention for the book in the UK.

Friday 16 May 2014

Isabel Cole, Anthea Bell Shortlisted for Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize

I got very excited indeed yesterday when I learned that my good friend, founder and co-editor at no man's land and co-host of the Berlin translation lab, all round wonderful person and godmother of the Berlin translation scene Isabel Cole has been nominated for the shit-hot Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for her version of Franz Fühmann's The Jew Car.

Another translation hero, Anthea Bell, is also shortlisted for Eugen Ruge's In Times of Fading Light, but I'm afraid I'll have to root for Isabel because Anthea has won it before. And because it's Isabel and I happen to think she's an incredibly talented translator who deserves recognition. I know the book and its translation well and can heartily recommend it. It's made up of fourteen episodes from the author's life, charting how he was drawn in to National Socialism and then out again, and more. It's very intricately written and Isabel does a great job of rendering that, never ever dumbing down. She's also a really good cook.

The Oxford–Weidenfeld Prize is for book-length literary translations into English from any living European language, and comes with 2000 pounds and a trip to Oxford. 

Thursday 15 May 2014

Two Top Links

I have two things for you to read today:

Rory MacLean on Tilman Rammstedt (because it's about one of my favourite translations)


Florian Duijsens on Kafka (because he does a very clever trick that shows you how powerful the translator's perception can be).

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Book Translation Life Cycle

People sometimes ask me how a book ends up in translation, and it's sometimes hard to explain. So I was pleased to see Publishing Trendsetter's infographic on the lifecycle of a book in translation. It's focused more on books moving from the US to other languages, but it applies to some extent to books going from other languages into English. Plus they have a few interesting little videos with players in that cycle, including with German-English translator Marshall Yarbrough.

I'd say in the other direction, for example German to English, you can strike literary scouts out of the equation and put translators in their place, because part of our role is pointing editors to German books. Also, there's a big overlap between translators and the readers who write reports for editors.

Interestingly, the American writer Kristin Harmel talks about trying make sure her books have universal appeal - Tim Parks will be pleased - but also says the money she makes out of foreign rights sales varies widely and isn't all that big a factor for her.

Jörg Albrecht Now Allowed Home

The German writer Jörg Albrecht was yesterday granted permission to leave Abu Dhabi, as various media have reported. His publishers Wallstein Verlag say he landed in Berlin this morning.

M. Lynx Qualey has a dispatch on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair as a whole at Words Without Borders, for some general background information.

The petition to the Minister of Culture of the United Arab Emirates to allow Albrecht to leave the country was signed by some 6000 people within 24 hours, and I like to think that got him home faster.

Monday 12 May 2014

German Writer Jörg Albrecht Still Not Allowed to Leave Abu Dhabi

The German writer Jörg Albrecht was invited to the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair to participate in an exchange programme. On the day of his arrival he left his hotel to go for a walk and take some photos. Unfortunately, he appears to have unwittingly photographed the wrong thing, namely the Iraqi and Iranian embassies. He was arrested on the street and held by the secret police for three days, then released but not allowed to leave the country. He was not granted access to a lawyer while in prison, nor were his friends able to find him. He has still not been charged and is still in a hotel, alone.

You can read an interview with him at Die Zeit (12.05.14) listen to an interview with his editor at WDR3 (11.05.14), read a press release by his publishing house Wallstein Verlag and sign a petition appealing to the UAE Minister of Culture at

I hope he is allowed to return home as soon as possible, although according to his interview he does not expect action from the court until next week.

Thursday 8 May 2014


Dear editors,

I have loads of stuff here, translations of amazing writers who are doing great stuff in Germany, winning prizes, gaining respect, pushing boundaries, all that kind of thing. Instead of me submitting it to you with a begging letter and you ignoring it for months on end and then possibly deigning to send a nebulous response about how it's not right for your magazine, why don't you just get in touch with me if you want something?




Actually, I do realize magazine editors have better things to do. One of the reasons I'm glad I'm not a writer is that I get offended too easily. Imagine if it was my own writing I was submitting to magazines. I'd be really really unhappy all the time.

But here's the thing: in the past, I've encouraged emerging translators to submit to literary magazines as a way of building up a résumé, like an unpublished writer might do. And one of the things I've said is to submit to magazines that don't focus on translation as well as the ones that do. Partly, this is a translation politics thing, because I think we should try and get out there and shout about non-Anglophone writers all over the place and not just in the usual venues. And partly it's because I think more people read them, and getting these pieces read is all I'm interested in. It's not like anyone's paying for them.

But while I've had excellent and encouraging experiences, on the whole, with journals that focus on translation, submitting to just plain literary journals has mainly been one big merry-go-round of frustration. The disturbing thing is, the things I send in are not by nobodies. They're by published writers, they've been edited and printed and reviewed positively and then I've translated them and usually also had someone edit the translation for me. Some of these writers have won major literary prizes here in Germany. And then as soon as they leave the country: nothing.

It makes me wonder about a few things: are there national tastes? Is that the problem, that British and American editors prefer a different kind of writing to German readers? That feels kind of unlikely to me, judging by the amount of fiction that gets translated from English to German. Then again, I bought The New Yorker's Twenty Under Forty and was distinctly underwhelmed. The other hazy thing is about writers having made names for themselves. Does the fact that German readers have heard of these authors make them think their writing is better than if it were a kind of blind tasting? So that, when I submit a translation to a British journal, say, the editors are reading it in a less biased way because they're not swayed by the name? If so, what does that say about me? Does it mean I'm subject to the same dazzle-factor? Probably, at least to some extent.

I'll probably keep on plugging away, at least on good days. I'll probably keep trying to come up with modest but enthusiastic cover letters to try and explain why I'm crazy about these superb pieces of writing. But if you happen to be a magazine editor and you've been thinking, hey, why do we have so few outstanding stories and essays translated from German, something needs to be done about this! - then do get in touch.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Clemens Meyer's Dream of a Police Career

This is so fantastic. When I went out drinking with the writer Clemens Meyer he said the director Andreas Dresen was making a film version of his debut novel Als wir träumten. And he said he hoped he could get a cameo role. This February article in the Märkische Allgemeine gives us a little teaser, and it has an entry on imdb and is in post-production but I can't find a release date.

What you can look at, though, on that Fischer Verlag website 114, is a picture of Clemens in costume as a police officer. With a tiny interview about how he wanted to be a detective on the murder squad when he was a kid, but that became (ahem) impossible. I'm so impressed. It's even better than the larger-than-life painting of him that surprised me in the Leipzig art museum. He's living the dream, that boy is, living the dream.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

In which I go out drinking with Jan Skudlarek

Yes, I am still going out drinking with German writers once a month. My latest victim was the poet Jan Skudlarek, now online at the Tagesspiegel.

Monday 5 May 2014

Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize to Shelley Frisch!

I'm so pleased! The Goethe Institut Chicago have announced that my extremely talented friend Shelley Frisch will receive the Wolff Translator's Prize for her rendering of Rainer Stach's Kafka - The Years of Insight. It's the second part of a mammoth biography trilogy, which Shelley has been working on with immense dedication for years.

I've had the pleasure and the honour of working with Shelley at a week-long workshop, where I learned just how good she is at her craft. And I interviewed her a couple of years ago too. Shelley is a great translator who focuses on non-fiction, and I'm delighted she's getting the recognition she deserves. Bravo, my dear!

Friday 2 May 2014

Ross Ufberg's Excellent Idea

Ridiculously attractive new American publisher Ross Ufberg (or maybe he's hiding something under that hat) details a very good idea in Publishing Perspectives: a place on the internet where translators could share projects they're investing time in, and publishers could pick up on projects they'd like to invest money in. He points out that there are so many publishers out there who may not be aware of amazing books not available in English, and so many translators passionate about those very books, and asks how they might come together.

Translators from German are fairly well connected to each other, but I still can't count the number of times when two or more people have gone bananas over the exact same book and even translated the whole thing on spec, only to find out there are others feeling the same way. It's not a nice experience.

I don't know how to build a website of the kind Ufberg suggests but I'd love to be part of it. One thing I'm not sure about, however – and I'm finding it hard to express the problem – is that I think some translators are all-rounders and some are better at translating certain kinds of writing than others, and some are set in their ways and some haven't yet managed to get as much practice as they'd need. So not every translator is ideally suited to work on every book. And as important as passion is in translating, the first person to bagsy a particular book might not be the best person for the job, if you see what I mean. As in, I personally might really love a fifteenth-century epic, but no way am I going to do the best job of translating it. So I would worry that a site like (don't bother checking, it doesn't exist) might raise unrealistic expectations. But it would still be a giant step for translatorkind.