Tuesday 16 December 2014

Heike Geißler: Saisonarbeit

I'm not sure but when I look Heike Geißler up on the internet I think I recognize her face. I certainly recognize her concerns, or the concerns she presents in her book Saisonarbeit. Heike Geißler is a writer and a translator and lives in Leipzig and has two children, and she also spent a short time working in the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig on a short-term contract.

Saisonarbeit is not, however, merely a long version of those "journalist gets a job at the Amazon warehouse" articles we all read with such ghoulish enthusiasm, Günter Wallraff-style undercover revelations for which the writer pretends to need a manual job and then finds it horrifying. If I were to classify it (and I'm reluctant to do so), I'd call Geißler's book an extended personal and literary essay on the shitty nature of labour itself under the present system, using the Amazon warehouse as an admittedly eye-catching example.

It is by no means an easy read. Heike Geißler grabs her readers by the shoulders and pulls us into the book, addressing us in the formal second-person form as Sie (a form of address that Amazon, incidentally, does not grant the employees in its German warehouses, where everyone is called the familiar du although the legend of "flat hierarchies", as Geißler shows us, is little more than bullshit). Geißler the narrator commands us, the readers, to be Geißler the Amazon warehouse employee for the duration of the temporary contract, or the book, whichever lasts longer. The book lasts longer. We are placed under a double constraint, forced as it were to take on the job that Heike Geißler applied for and forced to read about how the employer treats us, or her, and how it makes us, and her, feel. Except we can stop reading whenever we want to; I didn't want to.

And so we try out for the job, with a mixture of reluctance and misplaced pride in our small achievements, because we need the money. And we get the job and we hate almost everything about it – the early starts, the malfunctioning door that lets in the cold right by our workplace, the bogus pre-shift pep talks, the petty rules, but also and especially the nasty dynamics between the employees, the way people pick on each other and on us almost like in the school playground. And perhaps we remember our own shitty jobs, where we too took pride in fielding the most phone calls or stacking the most shelves for a while, or we think of people we've met who talk about "our team reaching its targets" and mean, if they were to think about it, a randomly configured group of employees reaching the employer's targets.

What happens? We manage for a while. We learn the terminology, the strange verbs and nouns and the way the employees communicate and function; we fall sick and get a few days off, we learn how to work the system, we start identifying, we stop identifying, we start objecting, we start dragging our heels and we have a sudden realization. Just like we can as readers, Geißler seems to be telling us, as employees we can stop whenever we want. I know – and she knows – that it's not always that simple, and she shows us people who don't feel that way, for objective reasons. As such, the book does have something in common, structurally, with those undercover journalism pieces, because the author does have another way of earning a living. But because she needs the job to begin with, at least, she never places herself above the other employees or pities them more than she pities herself. And that's what makes it work so well, for me.

The idea that some people having to work for others is a shitty thing is not a new idea, you'll notice, and Geißler knows that too, referring us to Paul Lafargue and a number of more recent theorists and writers (there is a bibliography at the back). But by making Saisonarbeit a work of art, something created to provoke emotions as well as to transmit information and ideas, she gives us a pair of scissors to cut our own door into the subject. There are things in here that made me almost crow with delight – when our narrator sends us to work in her place and goes on a trip to Munich instead or the way she, or we, takes strange comfort in processing books into the system rather than toys or tools. And there are others that made me fume, or sigh, or identify. This is an intelligent and challenging book that is rightly gaining a lot of attention. I'd love to translate it.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Bettina Suleiman: Auswilderung

I've noticed a number of novels that look at human-animal interactions recently: Lukas Bärfuss's Koala (which I have yet to read), Ulrike Draesner's outstanding Sieben Sprünge vom Rand der Welt – and Bettina Suleiman's debut Auswilderung, which takes the relationship between a human woman and a gorilla man as its main focus. Or should I say a female human and a male gorilla? We have different ways of talking about people and animals, because we classify ourselves as different. Or we have done throughout history. So the question of whether gorillas, for example, ought to have something akin to human rights is an interesting and productive one.

Auswilderung is narrated by Marina, an academic specialized in sign language. She tells the story – not in linear form; that would be far less interesting – of various research projects she's been involved with in Leipzig, essentially investigating whether gorillas can live as humans and whether they have personalities that would entitle them to rights. One particular subject, as the animals are called by the researchers, is Yeh-teh, the male I mentioned above. Marina's first job is to communicate with the subjects during tests designed to measure the limits of their intelligence. The gorillas have grown up in human "families" in an enclosed village, wearing tailor-made clothes and shoes and sleeping in their own bedrooms. Yeh-teh, Marina soon notices, is very ambitious, more interested in solving the tasks he is set than in the potential rewards.

In a key scene, Yeh-teh is asked that patronizing question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Marina translates her boss's joking suggestion that he could be a "gorilla", a bodyguard, with "guardian angel". Yes, says Yeh-teh, that's what he wants. He wants to protect her.

Not all of the novel is about their relationship; there is a lot about the conditions of working in academia, too. The silly abbreviations, the almost random distribution of funding, the hierarchies and semi-voluntary sacrifice of private lives. The first study is abandoned and the next project is to return the gorillas to the wild. Not such an easy task, it turns out. So after several years, Marina is brought back on board to persuade Yeh-teh that moving to an island with a bunch of female gorillas he doesn't much like is a good idea. She manages, using lies and manipulation on both sides – by this point, none of the other humans involved in the project can understand what she and Yeh-teh sign, and the gorillas don't understand spoken language. Marina and a small team move to the island to get the subjects settled in.

The plot is great; edge-of-the-seat stuff at times, and things come to a head on the island. But the two things I find most exciting about Auswilderung are not the storyline, which might well be a vehicle to explore them. The first is the character, Marina, one of those people who has trouble with other human beings and works things out using theory and self-help books, and the second is the ideas the novel explores. I found myself aggravated by and sympathizing with Marina by turn, a tricky thing for a writer to achieve. And although I know little about animals in general or gorillas in particular, Suleiman's depiction of Yeh-teh proves – within its fictional universe at least – that he does indeed have a personality, and on a different level that a writer can create an animal character as believable to me as a human one. The act of creating an animal character (and I don't mean feline detectives or the like) is a statement in itself.

This is an unusual novel, one that is still raising questions in my mind as I write this. It has a lot of amusing moments and even more shocking scenes; the most memorable for me being the night when soldier-like figures round up the gorillas in the village, seen from Marina's perspective as she follows the action on screen, interpreting from a safe distance. Amazing tension and just plain clever structure and writing. Suleiman does us the favour of leaving her questions open but allowing her narrator to develop and find some answers of her own. I want my friends to read this book so we can talk about it afterwards. I think that's an excellent sign.  

Monday 8 December 2014

no man's land #9

By the way, the ninth issue of our outstanding online magazine of contemporary German-language writing in English translation is now out there. no man's land #9 features fiction by Nina Jäckle, Anja Jardine, Angelika Klüssendorf, Ursula Krechel, Ralf Rothmann, Christian Schärf, Ronald M. Schernikau, Vladimir Vertlib and Feridun Zamoglu, and poetry by Marius Hulpe, Michael Krüger, Frederike Mayröcker, Peggy Neidel, Sabine Scho and Achim Wagner.

The Love German Books Incredibly Short Seasonal Poetry Book List

A commenter pointed out that I hadn't recommended anything for poetry lovers. I know next to nothing about poetry, but here is a tiny list of books of poetry translated from German to English and published in 2014:

Rainer Brambach: Collected Poems (trans. Esther Kinsky)

Volker Braun: Rubble Flora (trans. David Constantine and Karen Leeder)

Bertolt Brecht: Love Poems (trans. David Constantine and Tom Kuhn)

Ernst Meister: Wallless Space (trans. Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick)

Farhad Showghi: End of the City Map (trans. Rosemarie Waldrop)

During the summer I saw an amazing performance of some of the Brecht poems, and some of Margarete Steffin's poems to him. You can watch the video at Modern Poetry in Translation. I cried. In fact I was still rather sniffly for the following hour or so. They're good translations.

Friday 5 December 2014

The Love German Books Incredibly Long Seasonal Gift List

Yes, folks, it is once again time to shower your English-speaking friends and relatives with books translated out of German. You know they love you for it. To help you find the goodies, I have trawled the internet for suitable gifts. Think of me as a German book elf. All the books below were published in 2014. Links are to publishers' websites. I haven't read all of the titles personally, but neither have I included anything I think is likely to be crap. Incredibly, there are over thirty to choose from! You're welcome.

For artistic types or blackmailers: Herta Müller – Cristina and Her Double (trans. Geoffrey Mulligan)

For the whimsical: Jenny Erpenbeck – The End of Days (trans. Susan Bernofsky)

For diary writers: Walter Kempowski – Swansong 1945 (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

For starters-over: Julia Franck – West (trans. Anthea Bell)

For geniuses: Clemens J. Setz – Indigo (trans. Ross Benjamin)

For misshapen acolytes: Alina Bronsky – Just Call Me Superhero (trans. Tim Mohr)

For bird-lovers: Marjana Gaponenko – Who Is Martha? (trans. Arabella Spencer)

For the highly-educated: Joachim Fest – Not I (trans. Martin Chalmers)

For refusers-to-be-categorized: Olga Grjasnowa – All Russians Love Birch Trees (trans. Eva Bacon)

For ambulance-chasers: Wolf Haas – Come, Sweet Death! (trans. Annie Janusch)

For non-scaredy-cats: Zoran Drvenkar – You (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

For historical questioners: Malte Herwig – Post-War Lies. Germany and Hitler's Long Shadow (trans. Jamie Lee Searle and Shaun Whiteside)

For historical re-assessors: Bettina Stangneth – Eichmann Before Jerusalem (trans. Ruth Martin)

For the altruistic: Stefan Klein – Survival of the Nicest (trans. David Dollenmayer)

For adventurous teens and adults: Wolfgang Herrndorf – Why We Took the Car (trans. Tim Mohr)

For Susan fans and foes: Daniel Schreiber – Susan Sontag (trans. David Dollenmayer)

For those who don't mind laughing at Hitler: Timur Vermes – Look Who's Back (trans. Jamie Bulloch)

For dopeheads and beat fans: Jörg Fauser – Raw Material (trans. Jamie Bulloch)

For nasally sensitive e-readers: Andreas Maier – The Room (trans. Jamie Lee Searle)

For Depeche Mode fans: Dennis Burmeister & Sascha Lange – Depeche Mode: Monument (trans. Lucy Renner-Jones)

For the lost-for-words: Mario Giordano – 1000 Feelings for Which There Are No Names (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole)

For hoarders of dark secrets: Alois Hotschnig – Ludwig's Room (trans. Tess Lewis)

For fifties fans: Ingeborg Bachmann – The Radio Family (trans. Mike Mitchell)

For the young at heart: Christa Wolf – August (trans. Katy Derbyshire)

For Sebald fans: Alexander Kluge – Air Raid (trans. Martin Chalmers)

For open-minded satirists: Herbert Rosendorfer – Letters Back to Ancient China (trans. Mike Mitchell)

For city bankers: Jonas Lüscher – Barbarian Spring (trans. Peter Lewis)

For America fans: Alex Capus – Skidoo (trans. John Brownjohn)

For brave kids: Otfried Preussler – Krabat and the Sorcerer's Mill (trans. Anthea Bell)

For Wes Anderson fans: Stefan Zweig – The Society of Crossed Keys (trans. Anthea Bell)

For young twins: Erich Kästner – The Parent Trap (trans. Anthea Bell)

For Finnish crime lovers: Jan Costin Wagner – Light in a Dark House (trans. Anthea Bell)

For boxing (and graphic novel) fans: Reinhard Kleist – The Boxer (trans. Michael Waaler)

Wednesday 3 December 2014

No man's land Launch!!!!

We're launching the ninth issue of no man's land, the magazine featuring first-ever translations of fiction and poetry by some of the finest writers working in German today. This Friday! In Berlin!

This time we have some astoundingly good prose (I know because I helped to choose it) and some astoundingly good poetry (although I have nothing to do with that side of things). Please come and join us to celebrate the general astounding quality of German-language literature in excellent translation.

no man's land # 9
Launch Reading
December 5, 8:30 p.m.

Saint Georges Bookshop
Wörther Str. 27
Berlin - Prenzlauer Berg

German poet Sabine Scho with her translator, Bradley Schimidt
Vladimir Vertlib with his translator, David Burnett
Donna Stonecipher reading her translations of Frederike Mayröcker's poems
Joseph Given reading his translations of Michael Krüger's poems
Steph Morris reading his translation from Feridun Zaimoglu's novel "Artist for Rent"
Lucy Renner Jones reading her translation from Ronald Schernikau's "Small-Town Novella"

Monday 1 December 2014

On Improving

My friend Michele Hutchison translates from Dutch to English and has written an excellent piece for English PEN about how experienced translators get better. If you haven't read it yet you should go and do so now, really. If you're a translator, at least.

There's a part two coming so I may be jumping the gun here, but there are two things I want to add from my point of view, having been an inexperienced translator not all that long ago (Michele talks to people with a lot more experience than me, though). The first is that practice makes you better. The mere act of having translated similar phrases or ideas before, having tackled similar challenges and found a passable solution, helps us to try again. This is something I say to people who ask about how to get into translation: practice! But the second thing is that practice alone isn't worth nearly as much as practice with feedback. Sometimes I find myself trying new things out, or indeed repeating old things, that I'm not sure work. Or sometimes I'm just unaware that something I'm doing in my translation only really works in my own mind and not for readers not as submerged in the text as I am. That's where feedback is painful but good. Because slipping into habits is possibly the downside of having experience and practice.

In Berlin and a couple of other cities, we have translation labs where people can get feedback. What I'd really recommend though is a more intensive workshop situation like those offered by the Vice Versa programme in Germany. It's the equivalent of taking a loofa to your translations – it smarts but they look much better afterwards. New Books in German now has a list of this and other opportunities for translators, incidentally.