Tuesday 31 March 2015

Annika Reich: Die Nächte auf ihrer Seite

I am a total sucker for novels about struggling single mothers. And for novels that look a little further afield for their subject matter than the end of the writer's nose. And for playful novels that don't make things too easy for their readers. Annika Reich's latest, Die Nächte auf ihrer Seite, ticks all those boxes. I like it a lot.

So there are two protagonists, Ada and Sira. Ada is the struggling single mother and Sira is the younger German-Egyptian woman troubled, or maybe traumatized, by her visit to relatives during the Arab Spring. She's Ada's ex-sister-in-law and they're making a play together, which they do by visiting the families of the small crew and filming them (Ada is a camerawoman), and then the director Olaf will take all the material and put it on stage. Because that's the kind of crazy shit German theatres do! So in among the other action, we get slightly cringeworthy portraits of four different families in Germany. Cringeworthy for the children, that is, because their parents invariably show them up.

But what's the other action in the first place? There's sort of a lot of it and on the other hand not much. Ada is struggling to deal with her ex's love life and her own reliance on sex as a cure-all, and at the same time struggling with parenting her rather sensible daughter, Fanny. There are a number of those truly awful "Mummy has a headache" moments that made me love Ada all the more. And she's also making a film of her own, which we see in snippets, a kind of Rear Window, if that rear window happened to look out on a succession of couples going to and from a relationship counsellor. My reaction to these snippets from strangers' lives changed from mild confusion to craving – I wanted more, more microfiction of marital failure – because of course the struggling single mother's favourite consolation is that everyone else's lives are shit too.

And then there's Sira's trip to Cairo, told in retrospective a few years on. She returns to Berlin taciturn and upset, and the assumption is that something very bad has happened to her. Reich builds tension in the course of the novel as we watch the Egyptian rebellion swell, with Sira going along to Tahrir Square with friends and riding on the wave of elation as they seem to be making a difference. I like what Annika Reich does next, I like it a lot. And I like that she gives us this character, an educated middle-class German-Egyptian with pretty much the same problems as the rest of us, plus a dash of ethnic identity crisis. It's not heavy-handed though.  

Occasionally we get a page from Fanny's diary, which I could have done without, to be honest, because there are already a lot of characters in the mix and it's tricky to get children's tone right. But we do get the reassuring message that the poor kid still loves her mum, no matter what she gets up to. And to make up for it, Reich gives us an excellent climax with the play's staging (I imagined I'd hate it if I was in the audience) and a kind of Ada-style resolution with her ex.

So Die Nächte auf ihrer Seite is not a neat novel. I'm not quite sure what the title refers to – perhaps Ada's not quite ability to be the kind of mother she thinks she ought to be, or perhaps Sira's sense of not quite belonging to the Arab Spring. It's a novel about not quite succeeding, maybe, and like Ada and Sira, it tries hard to get a lot of stuff done and sometimes overstretches itself. You should read it anyway if you too are a sucker for messy books about messy lives.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

On Translation Copyright Rustling

When a translator translates a book, they create a new piece of work in a new language and they then hold copyright to their translation. In the front of the books I've translated there is a note that says something like this:
First published in German as Die Kältezentrale by Inka Parei
(c) Schöffling & Co. Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2011
First published in English translation by Seagull Books, 2014
Translation (c) Katy Derbyshire
That means that if someone wants to use my translation for some other purpose – put part of it in an anthology, make a Broadway musical out of it, print it all out in tiny letters on a poster – they have to ask me for permission first. Then I can negotiate an appropriate fee or simply refuse, if I don't want them to use my work. I'm unlikely to refuse but I do want to have some control over what happens to my creative output, understandably.

However, some publishers don't work this way, and retain copyright to translations themselves. This seems to be particularly prevalent among university presses, as Wendell Ricketts has established in a study of US translations. It's well worth reading his report, as he names the good guys and the bad guys in the business, and also goes into some of the strange practices of simply not naming the translator anywhere except in small print in the book itself. He calls on publishers to stop "copyright rustling" in this way, and also on translators to stop putting up with it.

The website No Peanuts! for Translators has launched a petition against the practice. I have signed it because I agree that it is exploitative and wrong, but I feel a little uncomfortable about the way the site is happy to name and shame translators whose copyright gets taken away from them, but doesn't put author's names under its entries. So while you can read their informative and combative piece on copyright rustling, including brusque calls upon the various US translators' associations, you can't identity the "we" who is doing the asking. Perhaps I've missed something on the website, but the only names I find there are 542 "endorsers" who presumably haven't approved each article. And I could take a self-proclaimed "movement" more seriously if it wasn't effectively anonymous.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Tex Rubinowitz: Irma

Or: 10 reasons why Tex Rubinowitz would make a good temporary boyfriend and 10 reasons why Tex Rubinowitz would not make a good temporary boyfriend, based mainly on the version of Tex Rubinowitz presented in his book Irma.

1. Tex Rubinowitz is one of those boys who know all the songs. Tex Rubinowitz is one of those boys who can imagine "Hang the DJ" crossed with "Gold" and can make a list of the top three songs called "Angela" and go off on a tangent about Angela Davis and Angela Merkel and postcards and the image of Sweden in Japan. We could have days of entertaining conversations and music-listening sessions together. On the downside, my weakness for DJs is such a cliché.

2. Tex Rubinowitz is a very good storyteller. Tex Rubinowitz can tell stories about the whole class making holes in the classroom walls with the points of their compasses and pretending they were made my Ichneumonidae (which have a much better name in German) and having to fill them up while the teacher read a confiscated comic, but first inserting secret messages into the holes, and he remembers or maybe makes up excellent nicknames for his classmates. On the downside, once I had told him about the two girls we called Woofer and Tweeter at school because one was very tall and sort of rectangular and the other was tiny and round and they always hung out together, and about the slice of tomato stuck for months and months on end to the outside of the window of the portacabin where we had German classes, I would quickly run out of entertaining schooldays incidents and feel quite inferior because my life simply hasn't been as interesting as the life Tex Rubinowitz presents in Irma.

3. Tex Rubinowitz knows that girls like boys who dance, and he knows that girls like kissing. On the downside he claims, like Irma herself, who is probably made up, not to be all that interested in sex.

4. Tex Rubinowitz writes like an amalgam of Jörg Fauser, Clemens Setz, Verena Rossbacher and Jacinta Nandi. On the downside, wouldn't I want a boyfriend who had his own style?

5. Tex Rubinowitz's book Irma is full of drawings of women. I don't know who did them, maybe the artist Max Müller? That's what it says in the book anyway. So probably Tex Rubinowitz likes women quite a lot, and also breasts, which is something I have. On the downside, maybe it's Max Müller who likes women quite a lot and Tex Rubinowitz really did used to sleep in a coffin, like the guy my uncle met when he had a washing-up job in a café in Acton after he moved back from Philadelphia because America was too hot for him, allegedly, or that's what my uncle told his daughter, and anyway the co-washer-upper guy claimed to be a down-on-his-luck aristocrat who couldn't be bothered to go to the House of Lords, which didn't impress my anarchist uncle I assume, but then it turned out he was a confidence trickster with a thing about coffins.

6. Tex Rubinowitz once sent me a friendship request on Facebook. I turned him down because I'd never met him. So maybe Tex Rubinowitz knew somehow that I'm really into Facebook and became aware of my existence, maybe from that time when I went drinking with Thomas Meinecke and wrote about how much we both love Facebook, but didn't know about my rule that I'm only friends with people I've met. Tex Rubinowitz seems to be really fond of Facebook as well, judging by his book Irma and also judging by a tiny weeny bit of internet stalking I did last night, but if he will set his profile to public he ought to expect people to click on that photo of his naked bum. On the downside, I met him for five seconds at the Leipzig book fair and I shook his hand and said my name, but he didn't seem to be pining after me or indeed even recognize me.

7. Tex Rubinowitz doesn't like coffee or tea and neither do I. He particularly objects to those disgusting sock-on-a-wire things that people use to make large amounts of tea in German-speaking countries. This might mean we are soul mates. On the downside, I think all he does like drinking is beer, while I prefer Coke Zero. This one I could be flexible on, I suppose, because I do drink beer too on occasion.

8. Tex Rubinowitz won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize with a text that is now part of his book Irma, and also apparently won an American literary award many years ago, and it would be really impressive to have a boyfriend with two literary awards to his name, he'd be a total trophy boyfriend among book people in two different languages. I could say, Oh, have you met my boyfriend Tex Rubinowitz, he won that prize, you know the one? And I wouldn't care that people think he can't write just because he's a cartoonist because as he points out, Harrison Ford trained as a carpenter and nobody thinks he can't act because of that. On the downside, I've never won any awards apart from one where you had to translate one page of Wolf Wondratschek and the prize was a month in Berlin, where I live anyway, so I might feel a bit inferior.

9. Tex Rubinowitz is one of those people who hangs out at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt every year and knows all the cool kids there and plays music to make them dance to. I don't know how this is related to his winning the prize last year; I liked the text and I like the book, as you can tell, but I don't know what the other texts the other writers read for the prize were like because I was quite busy at the time, or maybe I did read some of them and his was the only one that stuck in my mind, which would be a good sign, I suppose. On the downside, I have taken a semi-solemn vow never to go to the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt because of the horrible mayor and because I would feel pressurized by all the cool kids there hanging out together and going swimming and cycling and stuff and I'm actually really bad at both swimming and cycling, and even if I got over myself and attempted to join in I'd feel like a total fake, although maybe they do too, who knows.

10. Tex Rubinowitz made a film with Ethan Hawkes and I went on tour with the Beastie Boys. On the downside, I met this woman last night who really did go on tour with the Beastie Boys, so I was very glad not to have told my going on tour with the Beastie Boys in 1992 story.

11. Tex Rubinowitz lives in Vienna, which is a very nice place and I have a very nice friend there and keep meeting other nice people from there. On the downside, one of my main motivations for wanting a temporary boyfriend is so he could look after me after I get my wisdom teeth removed, and I don't think my health insurance covers non-emergency dentistry in Austria, although I suppose I could check.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Stats (German Books into English)

It's really hard to find out how many books get translated into English every year as a whole, and harder still to break them down by type. We have the Three Percent lists for the States, which cover first-time translations of fiction and poetry. And for the UK and Ireland, there are stats for the years 2000, 2005 and 2008, collected and published by Literature Across Frontiers.

So I was glad, at least, to find reliable-looking information on foreign rights sales of titles to different countries from Germany, in the stolidly informative publication Buch und Buchhandel in Zahlen 2014.

Rights sales as a whole are down from a peak in 2007, when 9225 titles were sold abroad by German publishers. In 2013 there were 6466 sales. The top buyers were China, Spain and Italy. 158 books sold to British publishers, none to Ireland, 9 to Canada, 196 to the USA, and 8 to Australia and New Zealand. That's just plain books. Both American and British publishers bought in more German books than in 2012, and 106 of the sales into English-language territories were literary titles. Here's an extract from one of the book's tables, breaking down what kind of books are getting translated from German to English:

Type of book
Rights sales to English-language publishers, 2013
Adult literature total
Narrative fiction
SF, fantasy
Poetry, drama
Comic, humour, satire

Children’s/YA total
Picture books
Early readers
Up to age 11
Age 12 and up
Children’s non-fiction



Humanities, arts, music total

Natural sciences total
General sciences

Social sciences, law, economics

School and learning

Other non-fiction


Only Italy bought more rights to fiction titles in 2013 (115), with France and Spain buying 103 apiece. One reason for the comparatively high numbers is that there are six different countries doing the buying when you consider Anglophone publishing as a whole, but it's definitely a good thing for German writers because a publication in English means people in other countries, particularly editors, can also read their books.   

These figures apply to German publishers only, not those based in Switzerland or Austria.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Leipzig Report

I've been going to the Leipzig book fair longer than I've been blogging, and I just looked back at my entries on it from 2008. Oh boy, was I enthusiastic. Three blogs in a row, one looking forward to it, one more general, and one on the now sadly defunct German-US literary festival Krautgarden. I don't bother with the ritual "looking forward to Leipzig" piece any more, partly because I don't want to write the same thing over and over again and partly because I'm a bit older and more jaded and don't get quite as excited about it any more. But I do still enjoy my first day at any book fair enormously.

This year I didn't go until the Friday. The fair opens on a Thursday, when the prizes are awarded. Unfortunately, these prizes seem to have little impact abroad. The translation section is kind of irrelevant to sales of German books (going this year to Miriam Pressler for Amos Oz's Judas) and the non-fiction prize tends to honour titles that are a too challenging or too specialized for your average British/US reader (in this case a history of neoliberal Europe by Philipp Ther). Even the "belles lettres" prize doesn't pack the punch of its autumn counterpart, the German Book Prize, with only five of the ten past winning titles either already in English or underway. To some extent, that's a good thing in my view, because it reflects the award's broader scope and less commercial orientation – the judges are all critics, with no one from the "real world" of bookselling involved, for example, and have given the prize to a number of short story collections (by Ingo Schulze, Clemens Meyer, Clemens Setz), to books that aren't straightforward fiction (David Wagner) and this year to a poetry collection. Only to two women ever, but hey. That's not their job. In Der Spiegel Georg Diez gets all het up that the winner isn't relevant to the world today, but hey. That's his job. Although I share his exasperation with the "eternally present" Hubert Winkels, I'm glad there is a prize that doesn't give a shit about societal relevance or commercial viability – even though that means I can't leverage it to get translation work.

This year, the fair also opened wide its metaphorical arms to embrace (German) book bloggers. They had a special lounge, which I didn't spot but then I didn't look for it either, and ran a campaign with bloggers reviewing the titles nominated for the prize. 54books assesses the highs and lows of the new focus – worth a read. So what was I doing? I was pretty much mooching around, noting down books I want to read and chatting to people I ran into, not a single appointment, not a single party or reading. And also I was being a mum, because my teenage daughter and a friend came along bright and early on the Saturday (hence the non-partying), mostly to see the second Manga Comic Convention. To be perfectly honest I wish I hadn't been there on the weekend, because the fair was incredibly crowded with visitors in groups of at least two, making navigation difficult at best and my mood, let's say, dampened. But we did have the added excitement of extreme numbers of cosplayers, who seem not to walk around quite as much as everyone else, which is kind of them. My daughter arrived all excited and announced eyes aglow that she'd seen a lady axe-murderer on the train. By the end of the day the two girls had counted 36 Pikachus. We sneered slightly because you can buy ready-made Pikachu onesies, and where's the inventiveness in that – but in fact, it must take guts to spend all day dressed as a yellow velventeen rodent in public.

In tribute to them, I intend to spend all of today in my pyjamas. The book fair is dead – long live the book fair.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Leipzig Book Fair Prize to Poet Jan Wagner

Well, there you are. What a funny day. They've gone and given the "literature" category of the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair to Jan Wagner for his poetry collection Regentonnenvariationen. You can read one of Iain Galbraith's also award-winning translations of his work here, or wait for the book Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees to come out next month.

Unwisely, perhaps, the taz just ran a piece about how a few other poets got a bit antsy (geddit) about Wagner's nomination. I think Wagner is a delightfully accessible poet with lovely skin, who's worked hard to get to this position – the first poet to win Germany's second-biggest prize for a single title, which usually goes to either a novel or a short story collection. And it's not like he nominated himself. He gave a sweet little speech, all shocked and overwhelmed and his nice skin all flushed.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist

The 2015 longlist is out, and it's pretty pretty pretty!
  • The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death 
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky 
  • Bloodlines by Marcello Fois translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella 
  • In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
  • The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
  • F by Daniel Kehlmann translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway 
  • Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
  • By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar 
  • The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim 
  • While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent 
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
  • The Giraffe's Neck by Judith Schalansky translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside
  • Tiger Milk by Stefanie de Velasco translated from the German by Tim Mohr
  • Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch 
  • The Last Lover by Can Xue translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
Four women writers, five German writers! What more can a feminist German book lover ask for?

I'm currently working on statistics about the proportion of translation fiction published in the UK and Ireland written by women. It's not going to be good news – four out of fifteen titles pretty much reflects the percentage as a whole, which is hovering somewhere around a quarter.

My favourite is Tiger Milk, in case you were wondering.

Sunday 8 March 2015

On Role Models

It's International Women's Day and I'm thinking about inspiring role models. Specifically, I'm thinking that the people I appreciate as role models have overcome certain hurdles to get where they are today. I think it's good to talk about our role models, spreading the love if you will, so that we realize that the straight path isn't the only one and women in particular can achieve great things via other routes.

I have some hurdles of my own. When I was a student of German Studies, merely being a woman was one of them. I was in a department (Birmingham University) with an all-male faculty, although the students were almost all women. Although my best friend and I got the best degrees in our year it was only men who continued their studies to MA level there – I think it simply didn't occur to us that we could have a career in academia, and none of our teachers suggested it to us. Actually that's not strictly true; I did happen to meet one then junior member of staff on the bus and he asked me if I'd be interested. I said no, I didn't like the academic atmosphere. Actually, what I said was (I remember it well), "I don't like the atmospheric academy – no, I mean academic atmosphere." I was a bit nervous.

It's OK, I know enough women in German Studies now to understand that it would have been tough for me, that career in academia, and wouldn't have given me the rich chain of experiences prompted by moving in to a one-room flat with coal heating in East Berlin with a trainee gardener rather than attending my graduation. But I'm glad that girls studying German nowadays are at least aware of the option, what with all the great women in the field to lead the way.

Now that I'm a literary translator, I can say that the things that have made it trickier for me are my slightly odd taste in books, my slightly odd sense of humour, being a single parent and thus really needing to earn decent money all the time and not being able to travel as much as some, not having attended the right kind of school or the right university and thus not knowing the right people, also because I'm in Berlin rather than London, and having a bit of a baby face when I do show it in public. None of them seem to be to do with being a woman – hooray!

So here are two of my role models, women who make me keep on plugging away. One of them will hardly surprise you: she's Anthea Bell. I love the way she raised two children on her own by translating, including children's books, and gave us her incredibly inventive Asterix translations and all sorts of other wonderful reading experiences, actively shaping my childhood without me realizing it for years. Here she is, very recently, on "Why Translation Matters". I'm thrilled that she's been gaining the recognition and honour she deserves, with prizes and an OBE and a big fat German medal and all-round appreciation. And she's still going strong. I suspect that if she hadn't divorced, we would never have heard of her – she'd have had no need to work so hard.

The other is a German translator, Karen Nölle. Karen has three children, including one set of twins (of course they're all grown up now) but she didn't let that stop her back in the bad old eighties in West Germany, when childcare was considered a sin and schools were out by noon because mummy was at home to make lunch. She moved out of academia to work as a translator from English to German and later edit too, and has been sharing her skills as a workshop leader for nearly twenty years. Indeed, that's how I know what a great translator she is, having benefitted from two awe-inspiring doses of her teaching. Karen is an active feminist, very supportive of other women in various roles, and enjoys translating books by women in particular, including Andrea Barrett, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Barbara Trapido and Janet Frame. In 2010 she co-founded the publishing house Edition Fünf, which re-releases books by women that have been unjustly forgotten. They make beautiful bright red editions, and I love what they say about their all-female list:
We don't think a writer's gender is a qualitative feature of good texts. What we're interested in, though, is lines of female tradition. We want to read what and how women write.
Isn't that a wonderful statement?

So on International Women's Day, why not spend a moment thinking of your role models and telling other people about how they inspired you? I note, having written all this, that the hashtag for the day is #MakeItHappen, which is tricky to fit in here but these are – hmm – two women who have indeed "made it happen" for themselves, their families, other translators and of course all their many readers. I have a feeling neither of them took the straight path but both of them are probably glad of it.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Literaturhaus Award to Nicolas Mahler

This came as a surprise to me. The Preis der Literaturhäuser is awarded by the - you guessed it - Literaturhäuser in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and has tended to go to fairly established novelists, a sort of mid-career boost tied up with a reading tour. A Literaturhaus, in case you can't work it out, is a centre for literature with an emphasis on events. I stopped going to the one in Berlin (which has a lot of competition, I must admit) after another member of the audience thought my friend was a waiter and asked him to get her a glass of wine. I'm sure the institution isn't entirely in control of who attends its events, but let's just say the more exciting literary nights out in Berlin are usually had elsewhere.

This year the prize goes to Nicolas Mahler. This came as a surprise to me because he isn't a novelist at all, although mid-career probably applies. He writes and draws comics, or whatever the correct term is. Some of them are adaptations of Great Works of German Literature; I have his take on Thomas Bernhard's Alte Meister, and to be honest I have no idea why it hasn't been published in English too, because it's funny in its own way on top of the original funny. He's also done Lewis Carroll, Robert Musil and Frank Wedekind. I think he writes poems as well, and lives in Vienna.

The jury said:
The programme directors of the Literaturhäuser linked in the network are honouring Nicolas Mahler as an author who takes an innovative approach to literature and gains an audience in very unique and artistic forms.
It looks a weeny bit like a bit of a publicity stunt, to my ignorant outsider's eyes, but it kind of makes me happy. You can get various of Mahler's books in French and English, published by Top Shelf, Fantagraphics and Soaring Penguin Press. And he's very well respected in the German-speaking world too.

I'm too tight for time to write about visual artists and German writers, so let me just park two thoughts here to come back to later: Christoph Niemann/Erich Kästner and Billy Childish/Hans Fallada. I don't know how much of it is commissioned and how much inspired, or indeed whether that matters. But Mahler's award is a little bit like a canonization.