Friday 27 June 2014

Drinking with Kirsten Fuchs

For my Tagesspiegel column (savouring writing that), I went out drinking with one of Berlin's funniest writers, Kirsten Fuchs.

Late Summer's German Book Crop

There are four German novels I'm really excited about telling you about, but none of them are out yet. I'm so excited about all of them, though, that I'm just going to tell you what they are:

Robert Seethaler: Ein ganzes Leben (released 28 July) – one man's life in 160 pages

Judith Hermann: Aller Liebe Anfang (released 14 August) – her first novel, an anti-love story

Olga Grjasnowa: Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe (released 25 August) – love, sex, ballet and Azerbaijan

Lutz Seiler: Kruso (released 6 September) – another first novel from a very accomplished writer, the summer of 89 on an East German island.

That's it. My fingers are itching to review them all.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

GBO Editors' Trip

Every year, the German Book Office in New York invites a different group of North American editors on a jaunt around Germany. This year they've brought over people from independent publishing houses and  given them a packed schedule of visiting German publishers in Berlin and Frankfurt, looking at books and schmoozing with Germans. Yesterday, I was invited to their "all-day conference on the topics of new German literature and digital publishing". Actually I was invited to the first two-hour session, which was about translation, but I stayed all day.

It was exhausting. We all sat around a very large table and talked about translation from our various perspectives, which are a little different. So I learned that some German publishers are bringing out fewer translations now that they have to pay translators higher royalties and grant them higher shares of subsidiary rights, but others are just biting the bullet. The editor I was sitting next to was quite unhappy about it, but then I'm unhappy about the fact that German translators are still poorly paid, so we agreed to differ. One American editor said she couldn't possibly buy a book before reading it all the way through, which means sample translations are of limited use to her, but I think everyone got the message that it's not commercially viable for a German publisher to pay for a full translation into English on the chance that someone might buy it. Others are happy to work with readers, whom they have to trust, however. A reader has to have their own taste and also has to understand the publisher's taste and interests, and has to sum up the plot in case there are holes in it. So it's hard to find people to do that, especially as it's probably the worst-paid job ever. I quite enjoy writing reader's reports but I have to admit it's always tempting to big up a book in the hope of getting a translation commission out of it. I don't do that though. No, really.

One editor had just signed a Berlin-based writer whose forthcoming book I'm also in love with, and dashed out over lunch to meet him. Apparently he's very tall with amazing eyes and can fill a room with his presence. I envied her quite a lot. Another reads German himself and got as excited as I am about a classic novel that's been re-issued in its uncensored form. Or at least I hope so.

I talked about why the editing process is different for translations into English, because my editors rarely understand the original. We all agreed that those meddling writers shouldn't usually be involved in the translation process – it just upsets them too much. And I learned that editing and translating debut novels are similarly fraught. I suppose that should have been obvious in the first place. Fraught was the word of the session, in fact; many of the editors around the table seemed to feel slightly uncomfortable about translation, with the exception of those who publish nothing but translations. I think that's probably because they have to let go of the reins and trust the translator, who then goes away for months before they know what exactly they're getting. Yes, it would be scary. 

Later on we talked about trends in German publishing: what on earth counts as non-fiction, why there are so many incredibly long novels, what about philosophers and is their work more than self-help, have creative writing schools got out of hand, are the Germans fascinated by death and bowels, and why do they feel the need to invent fake foreigners? Talking about trends is always tricky, but what I liked about this session was that it (and the others) was moderated by Ed Nawotka from Publishing Perspectives, who didn't come to the table with his mind made up. At previous events on similar subjects, I've often faced German experts who have everything neatly packaged beforehand and don't leave much room for discussion. And then we talked about digital publishing, by which point I was rather tired. But that was OK because we were in a room full of professionals, who were quite open about their likes and dislikes and how much money they're making out of what.

There was some extra schmoozing tacked on the end with all sorts of other Berlin publishing people and then the group was whisked off to dinner. Here they all are in flattering light, getting upset about Hachette's acquisition of Perseus.

I enjoyed myself. I've met groups of editors from an international programme before and that's always been slightly intimidating, especially because they often seem more intent on getting to know each other than on getting to know the German publishing world, if you see what I mean. This group was more focused and friendlier and more willing to share. I hope they get a lot out of their trip, and obviously the German Book Office and I hope they'll snap up German titles and sell their own titles back. Many thanks to the tireless and ever-stylish Riky Stock for the invitation!

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Two Interlocking Pieces by Annett Gröschner

Here are two pieces I've translated by the Berlin writer Annett Gröschner that I think go together. I also think they're excellent.

The first is a short story in a new journal out of Israel, Maaboret. If you fiddle around with the Reader Settings that pop up when you hover over the bottom right-hand corner, you can also find it in the original German and in Hebrew, translated by Gadi Goldberg.

And the second is an essay on a similar subject – gentrification in Berlin – at Slow Travel Berlin. If you ask me, I think you should read both.

Friday 20 June 2014

Ross Benjamin on German-language Literature in English

At the Goethe Institut's US website, the translator Ross Benjamin has an interesting article on the state of play regarding German books in the English-language world. I agree with almost everything he says – that there have been some great books coming out, that they are each a tiny blow against parochialism, that it's hard to get translations published, and that when they are published some editors want them to be exactly like non-translated books so as to satisfy an imaginary lowest common denominator.

But there's one thing I see differently, and that's the reviews situation. Ross laments "the relative paucity of reviews or other media attention they manage to attract (due to the above-mentioned disadvantages plus the automatic ethnocentrism of Anglo-American literary culture) and the shortage of critics 'who can say something informed about the quality of the translation' (as David Dollenmayer notes). This set of circumstances seriously impedes the capacity of translated literature to gain a broad readership in the English-speaking world."

This may well be true of the US, but I think it's changing in the UK. Perhaps it's my personal social media bubble, but I'm seeing a lot of reviews of translated fiction in the British media. Three of the pieces in the latest London Review of Books cover translated books, and at least six of the books advertised in its pages are translations. The Guardian and the Independent regularly report on and review books not written in English. International writers are invited to the big literary festivals in Edinburgh and Hay. Prizes that include or focus on translated fiction get major coverage. I'm seeing bloggers and tweeters and critics who are no longer shying away from international fiction because they fear they can't say anything informed about it. Instead, they're embracing it and enjoying discovering and sharing it. I'm seeing macho-tinged hype about macho-tinged writers, but I'm also looking forward to a campaign about reading women in translation. Translated fiction, in certain circles, is hip. And being an incurable optimist, I don't think it's a passing fad either.

Yes, we have grounds for complaint, as Ross lays out in his article. But let's work to get our books the coverage they deserve in a positive way. I genuinely believe things are getting better on the media attention front, at least in the UK.  

Tuesday 17 June 2014

The Oxford Weidenfeld Prize and Oxford Translation Day

My old friend and colleague Steph Morris just wired this in...

(Deputy Blog Agency reporting from the UK)
When Isabel Cole, my chum and fellow translator-and-writer, said she was on the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize shortlist for her rendering of Franz Fühmann’s Das Judenauto (The Jew Car, Seagull), couldn’t go to the prize ceremony, and had been asked to provide either a representative or a recording, I was flattered to be her preferred option – some US and Canadian translators on the shortlist sent entertaining video and audio messages. All I had to do was read from Isabel’s fine translation and introduce the book. The best bit was that not being Isabel I could also blow her trumpet. Which I did. Although I helped edit this translation, and saw it in an earlier draft, I was still mightily impressed by its fluidity and poetry. It was a joy to read. Isabel has earned this approbation after years of dedication to literature, with her many translations of fascinating (largely dead) authors for Seagull (hooray for them too). In the excitement I forgot to mention setting up No Mans Land, a huge achievement, but did mention the fact that she also writes – with a book out recently – a significant aspect, at least to me. (Isabel gave me some of the best feedback I received on my own manuscript and has a keen eye for fiction.) Having read The Jew Car in original too, I described what I think is special about the novel. The ironic voice on the one hand, evoking the perspectives both of naive young Nazi Franz and of post-war socialist Franz as he wrote, with humour as well as horror; and the un-heroic, anticlimactic dramatisation of ‘monumental’ events before, during and after the Second World War, with the focus on everyday, mundane details which makes the storytelling all the more convincing – refreshing and important in the context of the grotesque Schinken we’ve been subjected to recently: Nazi period dramas which buy into all the clichés and codes of Hollywood. Sorry rant over! (Well this is a blog...)
So, the winner was... not Isabel, it was Susan Wicks for her translation of Valérie Rouzeau’s poems – and there were two other poetry collections in the shortlist, plus a novel partly written in verse. As I was at pains to stress to Isabel on the phone, shortly afterwards, the judges were at pains to stress that the shortlist was as important as the winner, demonstrating this by each enthusing on stage about the books they particularly liked. In fact Susan declined to say anything herself on receiving the prize, nor did Matthew, MC, jury head and prize organiser, so the ceremony was also somewhat un-heroic. Luckily the principle of St Anne’s college toasted her over dinner. Oh yes, there was dinner, and fine wine (thanks Isabel, thanks St Anne’s!).
Susan is a Bloodaxe poet, and a Faber author, when not translating; like everyone who was at the dinner she was clearly someone who loved words and takes them seriously. As someone whose first degree was in ‘colouring in’ I found dining with a posse of top academics surprisingly relaxing, conducive and not in the least threatening. But not only was there dinner, more enticing to a thinny like me was the Rahmenprogramm. The prize ceremony was the climax of ‘Oxford Translation Day’, a festival of workshops, readings and talks spread over, erm, two days which reminded me of the VdÜ’s Wolfenbüttel gathering. Readers of this blog will be familiar with what goes on there. I attended a workshop on poetry writing, my new medium, run by English PEN, using poems in translation as the inspiration. Check the programme. Ok back to your regular blogger, that’s all from me.

Monday 16 June 2014

Our Friends Electric

E-books have something sort of inherently 80s about them, don't you think? They're a shiny new thing made of electronics, like all 80s music. Created in a spirit of optimism and distancing themselves from the previous generation, but maybe not reinventing quite everything. So it's only fitting that Berlin's first ever Electric Book Fair is being held in Wedding, at the 80s-licious Supermarkt.

It's this coming Saturday, all day long, combining talks and presentations and events with stalls, I believe, where you can chat to makers of electric books. Like your old school fair in the 80s, only without the country dancing. And it's also free, like all those parties on the South Bank when Thatcher closed down the GLC. I don't quite understand what will happen, so I'm just going to go along and see. There's all sorts of electrifying things on the programme, including an Electric Café and Electric Drinking (which I don't remember us having in the 80s unless you count Sodastream, which is not strictly electric). And publishing's answer to Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer – Richard Nash and Elisabeth Ruge – will be there too.

Berlin being the beating heart of the e-book world, it will be like having all the stars from Band Aid and USA for Africa in one room, just before they were famous. So rock down to Electric Avenue this weekend, kids.

Friday 13 June 2014


I've signed up to support Krautreporter. It's a reader-funded, daily online magazine run by German journalists, absolutely free from advertising and thus free from click-bait journalism. Or it will be, if they can get 15,000 supporters by the end of today. It will cost €5 a month and they're fairly close to their target.

I've signed up despite the fact that only six out of their 28-strong editorial staff are women. I've done so because they say that we, the readers, are the only people to whom they'll have to answer. And I would have hoped that a genuinely innovative approach to quality journalism would also want to shake up gender relations in German newspapers, where women tend to write about society and pets and men tend to write about the economy and science. But of course they can only shake things up if we're prepared to pay for their work. So this is me pledging €5 a month in the hope that other readers will see things the same way and they'll commission writing by women on subjects other than society and pets.

For strong writing by women online at a German newspaper, go to the FAZ's Ich. Heute. 10 vor 8. blog. It's quite astounding that one of the country's most small-c conservative media outlets would host it, but perhaps that shows that things are moving, gradually.

I'll update this piece to let you know whether they get off the ground.

And they did, eleven hours before the target deadline. The online editions of the major newspapers seem a little disgruntled.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Berlin Interviews

The journalist Katerina Oikonomakou conducts interviews with artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, dancers and what she calls visionaries who live and work in Berlin, or who happen to be passing through. I've just discovered her wonderful site for real, and I am sweetly drowning in its stories.

Interview partners include German book types Knut Elstermann and Reinhard Kleist, but also a host of other fascinating people, from the Auschwitz musician Coco Schumann to star GDR photographer Harald Hauswald. All the interviews are in English at Berlininterviews. Make sure to plan in a little time.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

New Readux Series/Arthur Eloesser

Readux Books have announced their new series of teeny tiny literary treats. The four titles this time are Cities and City People: Berlin 1919 by Arthur Eloesser, trans. Isabel Cole, essays documenting the city on the cusp of change; Berlin Triptych by David Wagner, trans. Katy Derbyshire (that's me), more recent pieces on change in Berlin; Where the Hollyhocks Come From by Amanda Svensson, trans. Saskia Vogel, a coming-of-age story from Sweden; and Hong Kong Buffet by Brittani Sonnenberg – Americana and sweet-and-sour pork in many voices.

Lisa Schweizer designed the beautifully textured covers, and there'll be a launch party featuring all the (living) writers at the Vagabund Brauerei on 2 July. That's correct, Readux are organizing a piss-up at a brewery. Books are available to pre-order now and will be delivered from 20 June.

For a special advance treat, you can read one of Isabel's Eloesser translations at B O D Y magazine.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

How I Smuggled Verse

So I was booked as an "interpreter" at the VERSSchmuggel workshop. I thought I was supposed to explain things they didn't understand and just shut up the rest of the time. Only I was working with two delightful poets, Anna Crowe from Scotland and Odile Kennel from Berlin, both of whom also translate poetry from French into their respective languages. So in the end we all muddled in together and translated as a trio.

This is what happened: I had previously done what we call interlinear translations of Odile's poems into English, for Anna to use because she doesn't understand German. And someone else had done the same the other way around to give Odile a basic understanding of Anna's words. These interlinear versions are very stark, just plain translations of the words with footnotes to explain nuances. The creative work comes later, because as you know translation is about more than rendering the words.

And then the three of us sat down and read each poem out loud and talked about it – how it came about, what it sounds like, some of the stories it contains, which words are special, that kind of thing. And then we'd work our way through line by line, starting out with the bare interlinear versions as a prompt. It was my job to type, which left the poets' hands free to gesticulate, and seeing as I had the computer I was also looking things up in dictionaries, looking for pictures of things as seemingly random as knots and underwater creatures, finding recordings of sounds and songs, and generally being the internet in person. So when we were translating one of Odile's poems, Anna would dictate the English lines and Odile and I would throw in suggestions for words, and we'd look back over them at the end, read them out, laugh and sing and clap and generally rejoice.

Some of the translations stayed close to the originals, and some were weird and wacky and free. One of Odile's poems, "Fragen zu Tieren", works around animal names, which are often very different between German and English, and often comical even to German ears (handy flow chart in case you're the remaining person on the planet who hasn't seen it yet). So we had oodles of laughs finding amusing animals that fit together well in English too. Some of them aren't actual animals. The English is called "Bestial Questions". It's the kind of poem that can take a silly title. 

If you translate, imagine sharing what's usually a very private process with two people who are really talented wordsmiths, people with amazing vocabularies on demand who know how to build a mean sentence. So you get to have all those conversations you usually have in your head, only out loud. I wonder if this word would work here? Does that sound too silly? Oh, that phrase reminds me of that rhyme my grandad used to say, can I build that in somewhere? I'll just look up that song/film/picture to make sure, oh wow, this is so good, it has to go in there, how can I manage that? That was what it was like. At some point we all wished life was like that all the time – we got things done really quickly because we had the combined power of three very different brains at our disposal. It was paradise, really, air-conditioned at the British Council.

We all got on swimmingly and I hope we'll be friends forever. There'll be a podcast at some point with Anna and Odile by Ryan Van Winkle for the Scottish Poetry Library, about that bestial translation, and a film about one of Odile's poems at some point by Juliane Henrich for the Literaturwerkstatt. And there'll be a book containing all the Scottish and German poems that got translated by various people at the workshop. Nobody will mention Robert Frost.

Monday 9 June 2014

Football for German Lit Lovers

The World Cup starts soon, right, and the literary world's football fans have it covered. The World Cup of Literature pitches books from each participating country against each other. Germany is fielding a heavyweight with W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz (trans. Anthea Bell), pretty tough to beat. And Switzerland is another strong contender with Urs Widmer's My Mother's Lover (trans. Donal McLaughlin). We shall see which titles get through to the second round in due course.

You can also follow the German National Writers' Team around Brazil, as they do something or other presumably funded by the DFB. It seems to involve meat and visits to stadiums, but they'll be sharing their experiences back in Berlin this coming Wednesday. Lots of very nice lads – here they are getting shouted at by their coach.

And finally, Buzzfeed has seventeen glorious hairdos on German national players since 1954. Gloriously un-proofread, but it's not winning or losing that counts, it's hairstyles.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize

The Austrian Cultural Forum in New York has relaunched its translation prize, which went away for a while. I assume the aim is to get more Austrian literature published in English. You have to submit about ten translated pages from an Austrian piece of writing published after 1945, and the winner gets $5000 to translate the whole thing and try to find a publisher. It doesn't say you have to be American.

Wisely, past winners have chosen quite short texts – because $5000 isn't really enough money to translate a full-length book without a publisher paying anything upfront. So if you have a short but sweet Austrian book up your sleeve, this would be the time to start translating it.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

On Fans and (German) Fiction

My daughter is into fan fiction. I'm a bit hazy on the details, but she tells me there are all these kids out there who get really upset when their (book) series come to an end, so they write their own continuations and put them online. Which is fine by me. She tells me the girls call themselves fangirls, and she loved the novel of the same name by Rainbow Rowell. It's all a bit meta, huh?

Anyway, according to the Guardian, Simon & Schuster have bought rights to a fan fiction series about the boy band One Direction. My daughter pours scorn on anyone who likes One Direction, so I assume she hasn't read any of the 293 chapters of After. The publishers will be changing the names of the boy band members to avoid being sued. Because of course celebrities maybe don't like unofficial merchandising items that merely cash in on their fame but don't wash any extra pennies into their own pockets.

As we know from the case of the French novel in which a character looks like Scarlett Johansson but isn't her. Ms Johansson, the Guardian told us a few weeks ago, is suing. The writer Grégoire Delacourt apparently saw it as more of an homage and is very upset. It's all a little unsettling for German fiction writers, who have so far got away with this kind of behaviour. Simon Urban's Plan D works with all manner of real people as characters but was gone over with a fine-tooth comb by the Random House legal department before the English translation came out. And Tilman Rammstedt employs an imaginary Bruce Willis to save the day in his most recent novel, Die Abenteuer meines ehemaligen Bankberaters.

I'm not sure where the line can be drawn between fan fiction and fiction by fans – presumably being put on sale for money makes published books a different matter to online fan epics. But I do like the idea of interacting with characters both real and fictional by writing them into your own stories, not unlike those new James Bond books or the reworked Jane Austen novels by current writers. And changing the names of Bruce Willis or Scarlett Johannson would stop those two stories from working, because the point is that they stand for a particular quality – brute force and beauty – just as whatever the boys in One Direction are called stand for clean-cut pop stardom. Or like JMR Lenz stood, for Georg Bücher, for the tortured writer. I probably don't need to spell it out, right? It's fiction – get over it.

On a related note, the exciting Prosanova festival I didn't attend in Hildesheim last weekend put three German writers on stage together after asking them to comment on each others' texts. They called it #brandtlendlereich and it was supposed to add sound, scent and sight to the social reading process. Apparently, it worked. But I suspect that fan fiction (a very social form of reading and writing) already has enough readers without having to tap in to the young German literary scene.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Some Links for Translators

I have three places for you to go today, and one for you to go on Friday.

The British Centre for Literary Translation turns 25 this year, and is celebrating on a Tumblr. Videos, photos and texts, including a very self-obsessed one by me.

The London Book Fair has now uploaded videos of all events at the Literary Translation Centre for you to catch up on. Talks on getting into the business, working with other translators, working with dead or living authors, women in translation, and much more.

And there's now a place for translators to vent about reviews of their work, The Translator Writes Back. The first open letter is from Alison Entrekin to Justin Cartright, who refers to "countless infelicities" in his review but goes no further than that. I'm not entirely sure this new blog will lead to a constructive conversation between translators, critics, writers and readers, but I like the idea that we now have a space to respond.

Finally, if you're in Berlin you should go to this event with David Bellos and his translators on Friday. I have no idea why it's only being announced in German, because it will take place in English. See you there.