Monday 31 August 2015

Sascha Reh: Gegen die Zeit

Part of my work is translating samples from German novels, which are sent out by the publishers to other publishers around the world in the hope that the other publishers will buy the translation rights. Occasionally the books I get advanced access to by this route aren't to my taste but usually they're exciting, because German publishers only have a limited budget for these translations – so they choose their most promising titles.

Sascha Reh's latest novel Gegen die Zeit falls into the Very Exciting Indeed category. Unfortunately, it's been months and months since I read it. But to ease back out of my summer r e l a x a t i o n mode and into some kind of regular term-time blogging routine, I shall now attempt to tell you more about it anyway.

The book is set in Santiago in the early 1970s. Ears pricking up yet? Yes, it's about Allende and Pinochet, but the story is built around a German narrator. Hans Everding, disenchanted by the German left and its eternal discussion circles, has gone to Chile and starts work as an industrial designer for a government cybernetics programme. Ears pricking up more now? And the action kicks in on 11 September, the day of the putsch, with Everdings and a colleague attempting to save vital data from Pinochet's clutches and also not get killed.

It seems that Reh came across a real-life revolutionary cybernetics project in 1970s Santiago and built a novel around it; a literary novel with thriller-like aspects, let's say. The material is literary gold, I have to say: computer technology put to use for the sake of the national economy, attempting to steer production in real time with no commercial interests. A third way between the Soviet planned economy and Ikea (but smaller and more impromptu than both). The author has an article about Project Cybersyn in Der Spiegel, which you should read right now if you're interested in these things. If you don't read German, go there anyway and click through the photos, which are a fabulous treat for design lovers. Orange upholstery! Moulded plastic chairs with built-in ashtrays! Because why coordinate production without a cigar?

OK, so now imagine there's a novel closely based on the events of the time, bit of a love story, bit of adventure, bit of idealism, lots of tension building up, all written in the slightly stiff voice of a German engineer with an outsider's eye who gradually softens up and begins to identify with the project and the people behind it, eventually forced to ask himself where his loyalties lie. You'd want to read that, wouldn't you? Right now you have two options: learn German and buy the book, or read my sample translation via the top link, set up a publishing house and get the whole book translated. Or you're lucky enough to read German already, in which case the path to enlightenment is considerably shorter. I recommend taking it.

Monday 24 August 2015

Letters from Berlin

Writers writing about Berlin in English is a tricky thing for me, something I'm gradually coming to terms with as the city changes around me. Two years ago I tried to put into words how I felt about the phenomenon, and I would say I've become slightly more accepting since then. Still, though, I wasn't overly enthusiastic to begin with about the idea of The Pigeonhole's Letters from Berlin, a series of English texts about twelve of Berlin's districts. Last night, though, I heard extracts from two of the twelve, on Wedding by Marcel Krüger and on Treptow-Köpenick – my favourite so far – by my friend Joseph Given.

Yes, the event was in a micro-brewery in Wedding, where ordering a drink became a two-way linguistic juggling session with me and the man behind the bar both throwing German balls at each other before giving up and communicating directly. And yes, I shall have to pay penance by attending three bottom-achingly long German readings in a row, perhaps including poetry. But this is just to say that – although I wish someone would simply commission German writers to write about Berlin and get the stuff translated into English (at a fair price) so that Anglophone readers would get a broader picture, and although some of the pieces so far tend to revisit certain themes a little too often for my taste, and although, once again, I don't always recognize the writers' personal versions of their areas – actually you could do worse than subscribing to the whole Letters to Berlin thing.

The pieces are quite varied, from subjective accounts of arrival and home-building to more objectively informative texts to Given's more literary approach, but they all feature sneaky little extras like photos, audio and video material. You can also comment directly in floating footnotes and read other people's notes. If you've lived in Berlin for a while you might not learn many hard and fast facts, but that's not why we read anyway, is it?    

Wednesday 19 August 2015

German Book Prize 2015 Longlist

They've announced the twenty titles on the longlist for the German Book Prize (designed to emulate the Booker), from 167 submissions. Here they are, with links, in English where possible but mostly in German:

First impressions? There are a lot of big fat doorstoppers on this list, with Peltzer, Setz, Witzel, Kopetzky and Zaimoglu, but also a couple of nice bijou treats and two babushkas. Looks like this year's judges paid attention to the clamour for more women on the longlist in 2014 (although there are only two women judges this time around). I'm looking forward to reading Erpenbeck, as you can imagine, and Helle. I've read two titles in full (Setz and Stelling), dipped into the Mahlke but lost the plot, and am working on Zaimoglu. Plus I just started reading Schwitter yesterday!

I shall track down the booklet of extracts and post my traditional take on the longlist in due time. Until then, enjoy the fun with the Book Prize Bloggers (linked via Facebook), an interestingly disparate group of people and proof that both the industry and the bloggers themselves are taking German book blogs more seriously.

Thursday 13 August 2015

Next We Take New York

I'm back! Did you miss me? I've been doing some much-needed r e l a x i n g – including the always delightful BCLT Summer School – and am pretty much back up to speed now. Note that I have recovered my natural cheer, despite it being hot as hell here right now.

And something quite exciting is coming up next month, for me at least. I'm going to the USA! My first time as an adult! I went to Philadelphia when I was seven but I don't remember it all that well apart from visiting my first ever shopping mall, where someone had kindly gobbed on the escalator handrail, thus putting me off malls for life. Worse things have happened.

Apart from just standing around with my mouth open in amazement, I shall be doing two official things in New York. Or am I supposed to call it New York City? The first is open to the public (you lucky, lucky public) and is a panel discussion at the Goethe Institut, Net Lit Unlimited. You can blame me for that title.

And the second thing is by invitation only, but if you tell them I sent you they might let you join in anyway. You probably have to have either a modicum of translation experience or a burning passion for literary translation, and you definitely have to speak German. It's a chance to bask in my infinite translatorly wisdom, an opportunity rarely available outside of Europe.

TransLab –

Workshop for up-and-coming literary translators from German to English led by Katy Derbyshire.

Date: Tuesday, September 22, 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm (subject to change)
Place: Goethe-Institut, New York
            30 Irving Place, 4th Floor
            New York, NY 10003

12:00 pm – 1:00 pm: Warm-up exercise:  What makes a good translation?
1pm – 1:30 pm: Translators will be assigned to small groups. They will translate up to three short passages.
1:30 pm – 3:00 pm: Group exercise: Editing the translations
This segment will focus on choices involving the narrative voice, and how to write a coherent text.

(Katy Derbyshire is originally from London and has lived in Berlin for many years. She translates contemporary German writers including Inka Parei, Clemens Meyer, Helene Hegemann, and Dorothee Elmiger. Katy blogs at love german books and co-hosts a monthly translation lab and the bimonthly Dead Ladies Show.)

By Invitation only. For more information, please email Riky Stock: stock at

A collaboration between the German Book Office and the Goethe-Institut, New York.

See you there, lovely New Yorkers! And it better not be too hot by then.