Saturday 17 October 2015

On Amazon, and Translation, and Heike Geißler

This week AmazonCrossing – the translation publishing section of the online retailer – announced that it would be investing ten million dollars in publishing translations over the coming five years, and that it now has a submissions form for people to suggest foreign-language titles for consideration. Reactions from translators have been cautiously optimistic to neutral; you can read a few in Thu-Huong Ha's piece at Quartz.

I think most of us agree that AmazonCrossing is doing a good thing by bringing genre fiction and eminently readable literature into English, breaking down the irrational fear of translations among the reading public. This move will make it even more of a dominant force in the translation publishing world. And that, I think, is what I find troubling.

I've spoken to a number of early-career translators who are working with Amazon. It seems to be a good way to get experience or to supplement more difficult translation projects that take more time. What I'm not aware of is translators who have made the leap – should they want to – from translating entirely for Amazon to translating for other publishers.

I translated two children's books for AmazonCrossing, back when they launched five years ago. I can't remember exactly what was covered by the infamous non-disclosure agreement but I've forgotten how much they paid anyway; signing it was, however, an intimidating experience. The commissioning and editing process was fine, no more friction with the outsourced editing and copy-editing than usual. The people I dealt with were perfectly nice and in some cases seemed genuinely interested in international literature. That was before they introduced the bidding system, though, under which translators say how much money they'd like and how much time they'd need to translate a particular book, send a short sample, and then someone picks one of them for the job. I strongly believe this is not the best way to find the right translator for a book. Nor do I recommend translators submit suggestions for books to be translated, as I presume that these titles, if picked up, would then have to go through the bidding process. Meaning one translator puts a lot of effort into getting a book she loves published and another one may well undercut her for the actual job. That happens elsewhere, of course, too.

I still get royalty statements for my two books, which are now sent anonymously (I'm not exactly getting rich on them, and they've since scrapped their line in translated children's books). I can't be sure because that non-disclosure agreement means it's all conjecture – according to that Quartz article, Amazon are considering doing without the NDA – but I believe they pay lower up-front fees than other publishers, coupled with higher royalties. Which probably worked out great for Lee Chadeayne, translator of mega-selling Oliver Pötzsch, but in my case shifted much of the risk from a multinational online retailer (albeit one apparently only just making a profit) to a single parent only just making the rent (plus shoes, etc.). Obviously that was my choice, as it is every translator's choice to work with a particular publisher, provided they'll take them. But let's just say I'm not going to do it again.

If I'm to venture into the realm of conspiracy theory, might I suggest that Amazon doesn't actually want to make a profit, at least on paper? And publishing translations, while being an idealistic venture that brings light into a lot of people's lives, is an expensive thing to do. A ten-million-dollar investment means ten million less on the books. Is that very cynical of me?

The main thing that makes AmazonCrossing not my ideal client, however, is the sheer size of the enterprise. As Alex Zucker points out in that Quartz piece (again), the new investment could add up to 833 book translations over five years. That's a lot of work to be managed. I assume the scale of the program is already the reason behind the bidding process, and the reason why the emails I now receive seem to have been sent by a robot. Remember that New York Times article about working conditions at head office? Now imagine you have to get 833 translations commissioned, edited and published in that place. Even a hundred a year, which they're already heading for, is a mammoth task that can only really be dealt with using a kind of conveyor-belt method. When I read about one individual translating thirteen titles in eighteen months (eight of them in a two-person team) – in the comments to my friend Lucy Renner-Jones's excellent piece from 2013 – I can't help but feel that quality is not the top priority here.

Amazon has proved very effective at using algorithms to sell things and streamlining processes to sell those things cheaply. I just don't think that algorithms and streamlining are best applied to literature or translations, or human beings in general.

Why am I writing all this? Because my translation of the first chapter of Heike Geißler's Saisonarbeit (Season's Greetings from Fulfillment) is up at n+1 today! Heike got a job at the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, not as an undercover journalist but as a struggling writer who needed to pay off her overdraft. And then she wrote a book-length essay on how horrible it is that we have to perform paid labour at all, but especially how awful it is to perform paid labour at the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, and how the company attempts to squeeze the humanity out of its employees and some of them even start identifying with it. There'll be another chapter up there soon so you can get even more of a taste of it. And/or read my review. So I figured Heike and I probably don't have a lot to lose on the Amazon front any more.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Something Else I Can't Be Arsed with: Charlotte Roche: Ein Mädchen für Alles

Charlotte Roche, author of Wetlands and Wrecked (both tr. Tim Mohr), has a new book out. Mädchen für Alles (All-Round Girl) – it's about a frustrated woman, disturbed by her parents' divorce when she was a child, who seeks release through unconventional sex acts. In this case, a mother who gets it on with the babysitter.

I just thought I'd tell you, so you know. I don't want to read it. I read the first chapter via the link above, and I disliked the narrator and the style and the setting and the cynicism and the apparent misogyny posing as honesty (or perhaps it's just misanthropy posing as honesty). And I thought about writing a searing critique but then I'd really have to read it, and it might come out as misogyny (or misanthropy). And it felt like a rather easy target, because Charlotte Roche used to be famous for being a television presenter on yoof tv and now she's famous for writing scandalous novels about... see above. So I'm just going to say, hey, whatever pays the rent, Charlotte. Go for it.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Not at the Book Fair

I am not at the book fair. No, I can't meet you for a drink. Well yes, I was invited to that party but obviously I'm not going. No, we can't sit down and talk German books. I haven't gone because I was away in New York for ten days recently and I need to get work done. And then having decided that, I said my dad was very welcome to come and visit, so I can't possibly go now. Which is, incidentally, the answer to that suggestion that I just "pop down for the day" (not that an eight-hour round trip to Frankfurt doesn't sound enticing).

And I thought I'd be rather sad about it. I thought I'd be upset by all the Facebook postings of booths being built and torrid tweets from the Frankfurter Hof. I expected envy, my constant companion, to blow itself up to the size of the marshmallow monster at the end of Ghostbusters. But so far, I'm feeling quite calm about the whole thing. Envy is normal marshmallow size.

I do love book fairs, you see. I do love the very first day of striding around and smiling at vague acquaintances, or frowning at leery guys who think they're God's gift to publishing. I love picking up display copies and stroking the covers, noting things down in my special book fair notebook. I love talking to three people at once and then getting tapped on the shoulder by a fourth person I haven't seen since last year and getting all tangled up in between languages. I even love the slightly naff parties – although I hate the horrible Hof, and have vowed never to go there again because it puts me in an instant evil mood.

I think I may be becoming a calmer person. I actually forgot about the German Book Prize all day on Monday. In previous years I'd have been glued to the livestream, no kidding. This year I was cooking for my family at 7 o'clock and then we listened to music and watched some old Muppets episodes and then I checked Twitter before I went to bed and, oh boy, they went and awarded the prize while I wasn't looking!

You might have noticed I've calmed down with the blogging. It's partly because Twitter is simply a better venue for posting short things, news items and what have you. Another reason is that I've written about many things before, so the eighth repeat of "why I am excited about xyz" doesn't even interest me that much, let alone anyone else, presumably. Plus there are now lots of book bloggers focusing on German books, so I feel they've probably got things covered and I can relax. But to be honest, the main reason is that I just don't feel such a sense of urgency any more. Probably, people aren't drumming their fingers on the table, waiting for me to post about the winner of the German Book Prize before they can possibly go to sleep.

I was just thinking of writing that I haven't got any new hobbies or anything. That's not strictly true, though, because I am doing more moderating, which means I have to read certain books that don't necessarily fit here. But if I were to write a dating profile for myself it would still say "books, books, books".

Anyway, bear with me during this calm period. I might get all excitable and start posting every day again, or I might not. I'm fine. Just not at the book fair.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

German Book Prize to Frank Witzel

It's not just me, I suspect, who's rather surprised that the German Book Prize has gone to Frank Witzel for his 800-page experimental novel on a West German youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The title is Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager in Sommer 1969. Publishers Matthes & Seitz say it's unavailable right now, so I'm guessing they hadn't dashed off an extra print-run in anticipation. And yes, good on him, Mr Witzel – a writer of fiction, poetry and essays, translator, illustrator and musician living far from the maddening crowd in Offenbach. The kind of writer other writers are happy for, the kind of writer literary types love to love. I haven't read any of his writing other than the short sample, but those who have actually done so are very pleased today (with the award and with themselves). You can read Bradley Schmidt's sample translation via New Books in German.

The judges said of it:
Frank Witzel’s work is, in the best sense, a boundless novelistic construct. It tells the story of a youth from the Hessian provinces who, at the age of thirteen and a half, finds himself on the verge of adulthood. Woven into this story is the political awakening of the former Federal Republic of Germany, which is just beginning to shake off the fustiness of the immediate post-war years. This era of transformation is conjured up through disparate episodes that run through an incredibly wide range of literary forms, from internal monologue to action scene, from meeting minutes to philosophical treatise. In its blending of delusion and wit, formal audacity and historical panoramicity, the novel “Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969” (The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969) is unique in German-language literature. Frank Witzel ventures into the precarious terrain of speculative realism. The German Book Prize honours a brilliant linguistic work of art that is a vast quarry of words and ideas – a hybrid compendium of pop, politics and paranoia.
I shall buy a copy when one becomes available, and report back. All I can say right now is that Witzel's win continues a line of "difficult" novels taking the prize, following Lutz Seiler, Terézia Mora and Ursula Krechel. Of those, I believe English translation rights have only sold for the Seiler book (forthcoming from Scribe Publications in Tess Lewis's translation). We shall see if anyone is brave and rich enough to launch The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969 on an Anglophone readership.  

Thursday 8 October 2015

Cornelia Funke Founds Breathing Books

This is not new news, I'm afraid – I'm working too hard at the moment to keep up – but I do find it interesting.

German writer and illustrator Cornelia Funke, asked to make significant changes to the the structure of the third Reckless book, The Golden Garn, by her US/UK publishers, said no. Her books are edited in the German original, she told the press (two different but similar interview pieces were published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Publishers Weekly has the full scoop in English).

So they gave her the rights back and she didn't even have to pay for the finished translation, and she has set up her own publishing house, Breathing Books, to bring out the book on her own terms. No one's really saying why the Americans and British wanted the changes, although Funke suspects they wanted to market the novel at younger readers – they didn't want it to open with a birth scene or close with an open ending. I'm impressed with Cornelia Funke. The internet would say Cornelia Funke gives zero fucks.

The plan now is to bring out the novel with a title closer to the German original than the planned "Heartless", as an e-book and a limited print edition to begin with in November, and see how things go. The new company will also do book-related apps and new editions of Funke's books with her own illustrations, plus re-releases of out-of-print titles like the fabulous Pirate Girl (tr. Chantal Wright) – which coined the phrase "you piratical nincompoop", much beloved in my household. The website looks exciting but doesn't credit Funke's usual translator Oliver Latsch, who is also her agent. And her cousin, I believe. So maybe he's OK with that.

I like the idea of a writer gaining greater command over her work in translation. I have to say I was surprised an editor would suggest structural changes to a translated and thus already edited book, but perhaps it really is the done thing in children's and young adult publishing, which seems to be rather concerned about putting readers off. And what makes me particularly happy about the whole story is the tiny spark of hope that Breathing Books might one day publish writers other than Cornelia Funke. Maybe they could offer a gateway to young Anglophone readers' hearts and devices for translated fiction. If they're reckless enough, maybe.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

You Too Can Translate Annett Gröschner!

A German-English translation competition! For anyone at all (aged 12 and above)! You don't have to live in the UK or Ireland! (But if you're planning to win the undergraduate category you probably better had, and actually benefitting from the prizes might prove expensive if you live a long way away.) YOU GET TO TRANSLATE A PASSAGE FROM ANNETT GRÖSCHNER'S fabulous novel Walpurgistag!

Here's the deets, kids! And me and Annett will be coming to the UK in December to personally shake the winners' hands, or something along those lines. Deadline is 6 November, so put your translating caps on now.

Monday 5 October 2015

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, ging, gegangen

We know what Jenny Erpenbeck does. I even met a woman who was enthusiastically reading her The End of Days on a train to Poland. Jenny Erpenbeck writes award-winning novels interweaving stories of lives in German history. And she writes about women. Now, though, Erpenbeck has written a book about men in the present day. Gehen, ging, gegangen is the story of Richard, a professor of Classics just retired and casting about for something to fill his time. He comes across a protest by refugees from various African states, who have occupied a Berlin square to try to obtain the right to stay in the city. As Tony Malone wrote in his recent review, Richard is initially motivated by little more than boredom and curiosity to find out about the men, once they’ve been moved into accommodation in his own suburb. But as the novel progresses, the protagonist’s interest becomes less academic and more personal. (Seeing as Tony’s review concentrates on Richard, I’m going to look at other aspects here.)

In between, however, Erpenbeck does build in her trusted technique of patching stories together – the stories of the men Richard gets to know, how they ended up in Berlin, where they came from, why they had to leave. There’s a lot of geopolitics here, but also individual details. The professor starts by interviewing one man at a time, approaching their lives laterally: what songs did they sing as children, what dishes did they eat on religious holidays, how long does it take to build a hut in the desert? But as they become friends, the men’s life stories flow more naturally and we learn about both the harrowing details and the good times.

The novel is based on real events, when a group of refugees from across Germany marched to Berlin to campaign for more rights, occupying Oranienplatz and a nearby school and eventually coming to an agreement with the city council that saw them moved to slightly more comfortable housing, with the promise that their cases would be reviewed. Which they were; only European law, as we’re probably all now aware, flatly denies asylum to individuals in countries other than those where they first set foot on EU soil. Meaning that almost all the men, having been unable to fly to Germany because that’s practically impossible in most cases, weren’t entitled to stay in the city where they wanted to live with their friends. The city council refused to offer the group of protesters any leeway and set about deporting them.

Erpenbeck takes that situation and reflects it back though Richard’s appalled point of view. Because yes, it is appalling. Rather like Chris Cleave in The Other Hand/Little Bee, she gives us a white middle-class European to help us relate to her refugee characters. I think anything else, for instance writing in the voices of the refugees, would be presumptuous.* And I think it works very well. Richard’s initial view gave me occasional cause to flinch; although he’s generally open-minded, he’s a man of his time and place – a man who grew up in East Germany (again true to Erpenbeck’s form). He’s not used to people of colour, and indeed the men’s skin colour is mentioned over and over, at least to begin with, in a way Anglophone readers might find disturbing. Yet as their relationships become closer, skin becomes less and less important to him.

He researches the difficult legal situation from scratch so that we readers can learn with him, accompanying friends to appointments with lawyers, officials and doctors. He finds small ways to help the men but is angry with himself for giving nothing but cheap charity. Eventually, though, Richard does more than that, taking a political stance. I’d see the book itself as a similar step further than charity. While it includes a call for donations in the final pages, Gehen, ging, gegangen is much more important in that it helps us to grasp a complex situation and feel something like understanding for the way refugees are treated in Europe.

With classicist Richard as its main protagonist, the novel also explores the idea that human nature and human emotional lives have changed little over many centuries, another of Erpenbeck’s literary premises and something reflected in the title. One critic objected to Richard’s comparisons of some refugees with mythological figures, from Apollo to Tristan, saying it detracted from their individuality. For me, though, this quirk underlined the book’s moral message. And yes, I think it’s fine for a novel to have a moral message. What came across for me was that flight, exile, escape from poverty, war and conflict, whatever you wish to call it, has happened throughout history and that Europeans should not presume it can’t happen to us again. As such, we are obliged to take in those it’s happening to now.

Gehen, ging, gegangen is less of a smooth read than The End of Days, for example, with less supportive structure. That does not make it any less of a novel, however. Its topicality has rather crept up on it, which some reviewers seem to find off-putting. I can’t imagine that was calculated – instead, it comes across as though Erpenbeck was moved to write by the people she met on Oranienplatz – whom she names in the back of the book – rather than by any desire to make a buck. It will come out in Susan Bernofsky’s translation in 2017 – and I will be disappointed if it doesn’t win the German Book Prize on 12 October.

*Although I’m curious about my friend Michaela Maria Müller’s novel about a Somali husband and wife, which mainly uses a closer narrative standpoint but isn’t yet published.