Monday 15 October 2018

Book Fair Post Mortem

Easing back into blogging, I thought I'd do a nice easy What Katy Did in Frankfurt post. Except of course nothing is easy these days, so it'll be a bit of a shit sandwich.

I skipped the book fair last year because I had had a tough time in my personal life and needed a rest. The contrast was all the more stark. Because exhibitor numbers are down, my international publishers were no longer miles away in Hall 8, necessitating long and hasty dashes to appointments, but relatively central in Hall 6. And because of global warming, the sun was shining. The effect, though, was a pleasant one: even though it's still a huge event, this time it felt more friendly and social. All six remaining halls are arranged around a central square dotted with pricey food trucks and odd constructions hosting extra events. So instead of walking between them along glassed-in walkways reminiscent of airport interiors, everyone headed outside and the "Agora" became a great place for coincidental meetings. Special thanks to Simone Buchholz here for the spontaneous ibuprofen/hug combination. But also to all the other people I ran into or met up with outside.

Number-one talk of the fair was the dearth of publishers' parties, followed as usual by the imminent death of the publishing industry. I still managed to go to two parties every night, though, so maybe things aren't drying up that fast... A friend who knows about the events industry tells me that sometimes, the money is actually there but the managers don't want to give the impression they're frittering it away. Sartorially, though, it was a disappointingly sombre affair, meaning I stood out like a sore thumb in my optimistic colours, especially at the parties. My advice: Dress for the publishing industry you want to be in, not for a Depeche Mode concert. Unless you want to be in aging goth publishing; in which case go ahead, you have my utmost respect.

On Friday night there were three levels of party insider status. Level one (and always my number-one Frankfurt party) was the German indies' party at the Literaturhaus, where anyone can attend for a small cover charge and drinks aren't free but cheap, with the dancing starting immediately after the awards ceremony (more on that below). Level two was the Dumont party, where you had to be on the invitation list and the drinks were free and everything was like it always is – crowded, dancefloor too packed for self-expression, much standing around and chatting to German publishing people – so much so that some people got confused about whose party it was, and possibly what year it was. It was there that I learned about insider level three, the Canongate party, for which you needed a paper invitation. There were, however, paper invitations to be had from relative strangers from KiWi Verlag, if you asked nicely. I got one and it proclaimed something like "This is the last party we will ever have. You must come or you will be sacrificed to the gods of netflix and amazon prime. It will go on until 5 in the morning so that you will make foolish decisions on Saturday." At around 3 AM, my brain so numbed by talking to publishing people for three days in a row that I barely remembered the existence of this blog, I decided it would be cooler to have had an invitation for the level-three publishing party but not actually attended. The logic being that getting more sleep would enable me to go and see a particular band in Berlin on Saturday, which would be eminently cooler than hanging out with yet more tipsy/tired publishing people. So I passed the slightly crumpled card along to a friend.

Here comes the shit part: Nazis. Last year there was a lot of stress around events organized by extreme right-wing publishers, featuring extremist writers and politicians and rightly eliciting protests. This year, the book fair placed all the dodgy publishers in one remote corner – except one of them pulled off a scam, pretending to wind up their press and then registering for a stand under a different name, claiming they'd be presenting books about freedom of speech. They ended up in the midst of left-leaning indies, rubbing their hands in delight. To be honest, that felt like the kind of elaborate and childish provocation my sister used to practice on me when we were eight and ten, so like most other people, I followed my mum's advice and ignored them.

But on Friday, the AfD's Björn Höcke was slated to promote his hate-filled book How I Will Whittle Down Germany's Population to Keep Only the Strong and the Blond (not actual title). This year the fair put him in a separate room and restricted access, blocking off escalators for much of an afternoon and calling in a significant police presence. Plain-clothes police officers threatened protesters and were generally more heavy-handed than one would expect at a publishing industry event – writer Sophie Sumburane was ejected from the premises for no explicable reason. Inside the promotion itself, a book fair representative ended up reassuring reporters that they were of course within their rights to record the proceedings, never mind what the organizers said, but television cameras were not allowed access. To be honest, the less airtime devoted to platforming Björn Höcke's hateful ideas the better, but the principle of excluding parts of the press is wrong.

If the book fair is serious about promoting human rights, it would do well to rethink hosting individuals known for propagating racism and belittling genocide. Things were better this year, I believe, with no reports of violence. But the book fair must be a safe place for all those who attend, and hosting Nazis makes it a dangerous place for many of us.

Back to the plus side: the blocked escalators meant I discovered the halal food outlet hidden away at the back of hall 4.0, which sold "Desi food like back home", including excellent samosas served up with cheeky quips. They'll be there next year too, so that and the supermarket outside hall 5 for affordable Coke Zero and emergency hosiery (if they don't demolish hall 5 as rumour has it) would be my top tips.

And now to my highlight, the olive on a cocktail stick pierced through the shit sandwich. The most delightful of all the delightful people to spend time with at the book fair were the people from Verbrecher Verlag. They never mince words – they'll let you know you if they think your idea is crap or if a book won't sell – so you can tell they really believe in what they do. They've begun championing bibliodiversity, changing their catalogue up from dude-heavy to a more balanced mix, with the women they publish selling more, it turns out, and garnering honours galore. Plus they're supportive and kind and funny. This year they were basically running around picking up prizes: Manja Präkels won the German YA Prize for Als ich mit Hitler Schnapskirschen aß, a novel about growing up with neo-Nazis in rural East Germany. I met her and she was lovely and very funny and got me a free copy. Bettina Wilpert accepted the aspekte debut novel prize for Nichts, was uns passiert, about a rape and the devastating ripples it causes. At the Hotlist indies awards on Friday – where ten publishers all got a prize each, a room full of love and support with slightly too little ventilation – that same title also won the Melusine Huss Prize, voted on by independent booksellers. Seeing their excitement made me very happy.

I was too tired to make it to the gig on Saturday.

Monday 8 October 2018

#Frauenzählen now counting coverage

Thanks to the Institute for Media Research at the University of Rostock, we now have a reliable pilot study on book review coverage and gender in the German press, radio and TV. It's only available in German as yet – at frauenzä – but it is clear and will form a solid basis for future research. The study is similar to the VIDA count, except it's publicly funded and applies to a smaller market. The count was carried out in March of this year (a big month for spring book reviews).

I can't decide whether or not I'm surprised that the key figure maps neatly onto the stats on translations into English by gender: one third of review coverage goes to women, with men getting twice as much.

Men write more reviews than women, and most of the books they review were written by other men (74%). Women also review slightly more male-authored books than books by women, but they dedicate more column inches or air time to women's books when they do review them, so their coverage works out equal in the end. However, women critics get less space in the first place, compacting the problem. Only women's magazines give women's writing more coverage than men's.

In terms of genre, male and female-authored children's and YA books get equal coverage, while 70% of non-fiction reviews cover books by men. Crime writing reviews top the discrimination charts, with 76% dedicated to male-authored books. In the category the study calls "general Belletristik" – so probably fiction and literary non-fiction, the largest group garnering almost half the reviews – male authors pick up 61% of reviews.

Things will really get interesting in 2019, when the researchers will be able to add newly published books by author gender to the mix. We'll see then, I hope, what's going on inside publishing houses and whether women's writing is being ignored after publication or published less in the first place. Or both, perhaps. They might also have a chance to look at a range of intersectional factors, as VIDA has started doing, or at least think about gender in a less binary way.

The report is not exactly cheerful reading, but it's good that media editors can now calmly consider which books they cover and who they commission to review them. For improved finger-pointing purposes, it would be great to get breakdowns by publications – but with the state of play as it is, pretty much everybody's guilty anyway.  Have a great book fair!

Friday 28 September 2018

Maxim Biller: Sechs Koffer

Maxim Biller, eh? He comes across as a bit of a one, a bit of a man-about-my-part-of-town. I don't watch TV shows about literature because I prefer my viewing less stodgy, except I did occasionally watch Maxim Biller ripping other people's books to pieces on that show he was on, before he left to concentrate on his writing. He's been annoying the German literary establishment for so long that he's become very good at doing so in an entertaining way. I'm glad he went back to writing, though. My feeling is that he writes two kinds of books: serious literary tomes that don't interest me as much, and short, playful fillers that turn out excellent. Sechs Koffer falls into category two, as did Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz.

The novel is shortlisted for the German Book Prize, and is my favourite of the titles I've read so far. Ostensibly, it's a story about the Biller family, which is a fascinating subject in itself, as evidenced by Elena Lappin's memoir What Language Do I Dream In? Lappin's brother Biller, however, takes a  more mercurial approach. His six chapters are presumably the six suitcases of the title, in some way I can't quite work out. Perhaps they each contain a suitcase; certainly there's a lot of migration involved. They are set in different times and places where family members live: Prague, Zurich, Hamburg, with a storyline spanning from the 1950s to the present day. Our narrator, let's call him Maxim Biller, has been trying for decades to find out a family secret. His grandfather was hanged by the Soviets for black-marketeering – and someone must have betrayed him. Each of the chapters adopts a different character's point of view.

The nuclear family starts off in Prague, though the mother Rada has moved there from Moscow, where she met the father Sjoma, a translator (heart emoji). Uncle Dima is married to Natalia – an attractive filmmaker generally considered a bad egg – and is put in prison for trying to escape to the West. There are two more brothers, Lev and Vladimir, in West Berlin and Brazil, who send occasional luxury goods. And there is Jelena, Maxim's sister, and Maxim, who grows up mainly in Hamburg. We meet the family on the eve of Dima's release, as seen by his brother and his sister-in-law respectively, then when Maxim visits Dima in Zurich ten years later, then in a letter from Natalia, sent from miserable Montreal to her ex-lover, Sjoma. The last two chapters are told from the perspectives of a grudge-bearing Lev, at the time of Dima's funeral, and a present-day Jelena. It's important, and is stressed, that the family is Jewish; although there is very little religion involved, communist Europe is not a safe place for them.

Imagine a game of Cluedo with six unreliable narrators. Biller has a lot of fun with us, sowing seeds of suspicion and then unearthing them again, varying tiny details – was the fridge red or blue, was it the lead piping or the candlestick? All the time, though, giving us a fascinating portrait of a Jewish family spread around the world. I've read it twice now and of course I'm none the wiser, but I do respect the author's writing skills all the more. There is the humour of the voice – today's "Maxim Biller" telling us about how his parents or sister or uncles saw events at various times. There's the quiet, affectionate humour of the characters themselves, the father not going into the kitchen because he knows he'll shout at his kids, the sister looking through photos of her own grown-up children and thinking about what to cook for Shabbat if her daughter comes to visit – "with her goy or without him, that was up to her". And in the longest section, the one in which a young Maxim plays the starring role – can this be a coincidence? – there's a great comic-relief character, the kind of teenage wannabe lothario who makes me grind my teeth in vicarious embarrassment.

And then there's the excellent writing, the well-crafted sentences, the melancholy descriptions: of rainy Hamburg, shabby 1970s Zurich, the alluring smell of a brand new Skoda in 1965. There are the literary references that are never quite transparent. The novel works partly because of its mischievous plot and partly because Biller is simply very good at writing. I recommend it.

Monday 6 August 2018

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, tr. Ros Schwartz

Here is something like a translation memoir, the story of Mireille Gansel’s multiple and changing relationships to various languages and to the act of translation. The author begins, in delicate prose, with stories of Hungarian and German in her French childhood. Gansel comes from a Jewish mitteleuropäische family spread across exiles in Europe and Israel, who speak Hungarian (which she does not understand as a child, but loves to hear her father translate aloud) and the German of the pre-Nazi Austro-Hungarian empire. She writes beautifully about the inflections of Czech, Yiddish and Hebrew in her relatives’ accents, their language as a relic of history. Her translator Ros Schwartz has given us a polished rendering, letting the author’s precise and considered voice shine through and always staying this side of kitsch, but I would have expected no less from her.

Gansel learns German at school and goes on to study it and eventually translate its poetry, but for her, language is a literary medium that has a deep association with the individuals who speak it. Transhumance means taking sheep from one pasture to another, but every time I read it the word human stands out – a productive misunderstanding. Writing about the poets she has translated, Gansel tells us very personal stories about them. How she discovered their work, what happened when they met (if they were still alive), what influenced them, the melodies of their verses and voices. Her repeated query is: How was I to translate this? Each writer necessitates a different approach. It seems almost to be a question of passing a poem between two human beings, and to do so Gansel seeks a close understanding of the work and its creator, spending time with them and then finding the fitting place to translate.

Gansel writes fascinatingly about her work in Vietnam on Vietnamese poetry, taking a new tack as bombs were falling during the 1970s. Her translator Ros Schwartz told me: “A good translation doesn’t colonise the work but preserves the joys and beauties of its ‘otherness’ without resorting to weird foreignization.” Gansel herself quotes the translator Nguyen Khac Vien’s guiding principle: “‘Staying faithful means first and foremost seeking to recreate the work’s humanity, its universality.’ An approach that meant liberation from all forms of exoticism, appropriation, and the cultural and spiritual annexation characteristic of the translations produced under colonisation.” She does just that, not only in her translations but in the way she thinks about poetry and people, moving directly from the Vietnamese To Huu’s lines on casuarina forests to Brecht’s thoughts on the near-criminality of talking about trees in difficult times – though conditions are very different in a country stripped of vegetation by Agent Orange.

To help her work on the texts of minority language-speakers in the Vietnamese mountains, she looks to field ethnology gathering spoken language in the Alps, “absorbing the rhythms and cadences of those words and voices, discovering an entire register of expressions, accents and constructions.” All this helps her to understand the nature of orality and form. People, I understand from her working method, are human wherever they are. That shepherding metaphor has at its heart a sense of less crossing but rather ignoring and defying boundaries. Over its long history, German has been spoken across shifting political borders and overlapping with other languages, as Gansel points out, making the notion of pinning language to nationality a fallacy.

That helps, I’m convinced, to reclaim German from its abuse by fascists, as Brecht did and as many exiled writers attempted, including Nelly Sachs, whom Gansel translated with great care. It’s hard for me to judge her work in this instance without understanding French; by necessity, the book uses various translators’ English renderings, which vary in effectiveness. But the questions she raises, of how to capture Sachs’s dense Hebrew-infused poetry, are fascinating. In the face of repeated right-wing calls for everyone living in Germany to adhere to an ill-defined Leitkultur, asserting a pluralist vision of German language, literature and culture is still a key task. The “German-speaking world” is a place where many languages are spoken, now too, and where those languages permeate each other to produce exciting writing, influenced far more widely than by any standard canon. Mireille Gansel reminds us that the world is more complex and wonderful than those who call for a single dominant national culture would have us believe.

That, and her lessons about taking great time and care over the human aspect of translation, will stay with me for a long time to come.

Monday 16 July 2018

Sandra Hoffmann: Paula

PAULA is a strange, disturbing book. It refuses to sit firmly in any one category. In many ways, it’s a memoir. It’s made up largely of Sandra Hoffmann’s memories of her grandmother, the Paula of the title, and the silence that she spread across the family. Paula, a devout Catholic from rural southern Germany, had two illegitimate children. One died shortly after his birth; the other was Hoffmann’s mother. Paula refused to tell anyone who the father or fathers were.

It’s that silence, that yawning gap in the family’s history, that means the book isn’t quite a memoir. Over the years, Hoffmann has had to use fiction to imagine her own origins, the reason why she and her mother are darker-skinned than anyone else in the village.
Several times in my life, I’ve been thought Greek, Moroccan, Turkish, half-Indian, French or Italian. I’m still searching for the root that nurtures these assumptions. Where does my skin colour come from, my dark, wiry hair?
She has explored her possible origins in stories and a novel, Was ihm fehlen wird, wenn er tot ist. And in this book too, she resorts to her imagination to fill in the blank spots. The author refers to her book as a “narrative”; its editor calls it a “memoir”; it can be read as a novel and certainly has the beautiful language and carefully crafted structure of one. I know that Sandra Hoffmann wrote a much longer book and pared it down to a highly atmospheric 157 pages.

Paula left a collection of some 400 photos, which Hoffmann uses to beautiful effect as a narrative device. Again, though, these are real pictures, of real people – unidentified people. The narrator combs through them repeatedly, searching for men who might be her grandfather or someone her grandmother once loved, and for clues about the rest of her story. Meanwhile, we read about her increasingly oppressive life under one roof with Paula, and with parents who have abandoned curiosity in favour of a comfortable life. An understandable choice, and one that Hoffmann doesn’t condemn them for, although she clearly mourns it.

Interspersed with reflections from the present day, we learn more and more about Paula as the narrator gets older and her perspective alters. Her grandmother changes from a familiar, soothing presence, who teaches her to pray and protects her from her fears, to an infuriating disruption, refusing to respect her personal space and making her ill. And eventually, a woman who had a tough life and was shaped by it. The narrator pieces together a story for her grandmother out of snatches of conversation, stories told to her as a child, things her father tells her later. Yet there is no way to find out where she herself comes from. The conclusion, if there can be one, is that Sandra Hoffmann became a writer precisely because of that family silence, as a way to understand herself.

This is not, however, a purely therapeutic exercise. The book is a joy to read, thoughtful and precise and self-possessed, yet it always feels intimate. Hoffmann was influenced by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, but her book is all her own. It presents a number of exciting challenges for translators: natural use of Swabian dialect, capturing the oppressive tone of family life, getting the careful sentences right – and the central idea, that of Schweigen, which doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. I don’t want to jump the gun on that because Sandra Hoffmann will be our writer-in-residence at the BCLT Summer School in Norwich next week, and the participants will have the pleasure of finding solutions. I’m very much looking forward to it, and to the outcome. It feels to me like a book where translators will benefit hugely from direct conversation with the author.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Autumn 2018 Gender Stats

Hello there!

Just to let you know, I've updated my list of original German hardcover Belletristik (fiction, poetry, essays, and I think I included one collection of plays) in a selection of publishers' catalogues, counting up writers by gender. It is of course disheartening reading, with 54 books by women coming out at the same time as 90 written by men. That's 37.5% women, up half a percentage point from autumn 2016. As usual, genre fiction leans towards women, with dtv bringing out 7 female-authored and only 3 male-authored books this autumn, for instance. Literary fiction catalogues (Suhrkamp 2:10, Fischer 1:5, Diogenes 0:5, Hanser 1:4, KiWi 3:8, and so on) tend to do the opposite, heavily favouring men.

Here's something that certainly cheered me up, though: Hanser Berlin is publishing an anthology of women writing in German about sex and power, edited by Lina Muzur, on 23 July. Featuring Fatma Aydemir, Antonia Baum, Kristine Bilkau, Heike-Melba Fendel, Nora Gomringer, Annett Gröschner, Anna Katharina Hahn, Helene Hegemann, Margarita Iov, Mercedes Lauenstein, Juliane Liebert, Anna Prizkau, Annika Reich, Anke Stelling, Margarete Stokowski, Jackie Thomae and Julia Wolf. At least we have that.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

What is a good translation?

I'm still thinking about how we define "good" in terms of literary translation. For the Seagull Books newsletter, I asked a whole lot of other translators their opinions, and wrote about why it matters, whether we can demand that reviewers understand, and how taste plays a role. You can read it here.

Sunday 18 March 2018

On Appreciating Translations

As translators demand and gain increased recognition, our greater visibility has both pros and cons. It means that while some critics acknowledge our existence with a swift and not unwelcome "smoothly translated by" that might previously have been cut by an editor, others seek to engage with our work but in a negative way, pointing out its flaws. At which point other translators leap to our defence. This week, Emma Ramadan published the first part of a year-long diary at the Quarterly Conversation. Among other very interesting things, she addresses this issue, asking:
Why is it that anyone who dares write a negative review of a popular translation becomes a target? This is a problem. Or is it? Should we only positively review translations so that we lift the boat of translations in general? Should we all form a pact to refrain from reviewing translations we don’t like? Shouldn’t translations be able to stand up to the same criticism as books originally written in English?
For a while, I tried to organize a workshop bringing together critics (paid and unpaid) and translators, with the aim of talking about what makes a good translation, what makes a good review, and what makes a good review of a translation. I'm too far away from the UK, though, so it came to nothing. Maybe I'll try again some time. But for now, I'll gather my thoughts about it here.

I hope that translations are able to stand up to the same criticism as books originally written in English. Emma writes about abandoning a review because she disliked the book, and I know others who have done the same. In fact, back when I was reviewing books regularly here, unpaid, I usually chose not to bother finishing books I disliked – why prolong my misery and then write about it? (Part of this is probably because like many women, I want people to like me, I want to be nice.)

What I would also like, though, is for critics to deal fairly with translations, not treat them like country cousins. That would mean taking them seriously and making an attempt to critique different aspects: plot, style, language and translation. At the moment, critiquing the translator's work often takes one of two approaches, as I mentioned above: the single-adverb compliment – robustly, smoothly, adeptly, elegantly, etc. – and the find-the-flaw game, in which the reviewer points out misunderstandings and poor word choices. In her fascinating book on translation, This Little Art, Kate Briggs addresses this mistake-spotting with reference to two much-criticized (women) translators:
It has to be possible, in other words, for someone, for the critic, for the philosopher, for the harder-working translator, to identify and correct the translator's mistakes. Doing so can be a means of alerting readers to the fact of translation (...) and of preparing the ground for retranslation. It has to be possible to continue this inexhaustible work together: to query and vary each other's decisions, holding to or elaborating alternative measures of precision and care, without quarrelling, necessarily, or policing. And without shaming? This, it seems, is less clear.
My answer would be this: when we write about translations, we should bear in mind that they've been written by fallible human beings – as have all books. Translation is difficult. So is writing. It is hard to move a literary text between languages that don't overlap in terms of semantics, sounds, traditions. It is also hard to write descriptions of things that exist without words, thinks like sex, music, fields of daffodils. Literary criticism assesses how well those difficult things have been achieved.

I think I'm not alone in feeling that negative criticism of translators' work would be easier to stomach if it were accompanied by positive, in-depth appreciation of the occasions when we do well. On Twitter last week, I suggested a short list of positive attributes I look out for in translations, and others, including Frank Wynne – double-nominated for the Man Booker International Prize only hours later – added some more. Here are many of them:
Maintaining a rhythm
Creative word choices
Preserving oddities
Finding (new) ways to bring across cultural specifics
Playful approaches
(Re)creating a viable and distinct voice, authorial or character-driven
Taking chances, intervening more than usual
Recreating humour
Preserving a sense of place/period
Imaginatively dealing with dialect/slang, making them sound natural
Reproducing a sense of cadence
Using calque to good effect
Reproducing the uniqueness of a voice rather than smoothing it out
Recovering rare words
Maintaining linguistic resonances through consistent word choice
Preserving alliteration and aptonyms
I realize it's difficult to spot some of these things if you don't speak the original language and so can't compare, particularly with word choice issues. And I admit that not every translation has to tackle all these difficulties; some writing is simply smooth, so the translator's task is to render it smoothly. But I think we can pick up on many of these positive achievements regardless of our knowledge of the original. I'm currently judging an award for international literature translated into German, reading books translated from many different languages into a language that isn't my native tongue. I find myself quite capable of spotting in these translations both flaws – inconsistency, bumpy rhythm, unconvincing voices – and achievements – language patina, a sense of urgency, rescued humour, successfully solved linguistic sudoku.

And at our monthly translation lab in Berlin, we occasionally take the time to appreciate a specific translation. We compare it to the original and focus only on all its many positives, all the things we might emulate in our work. Sure, there are always things we might have done differently and it's hard to resist pointing them out. But I think if we only have negative role models, we end up aiming only for an impossible notion of flawlessness.

Kate Briggs has a gorgeous, reassuring parenthesis on page 86:
(If you don't want to make mistakes, don't do translations, I was once told – an enabling dictum that I keep close to my heart.)
So instead of pretending there can ever be a flawless translation, let's take translators seriously, celebrate what we do well and find ways to criticize without policing. When we review translated literature, let's aim to review all aspects of it. I'm a big fan of the translation reviews at the Glasgow Review of Books, by the way, because that's what they do.