Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Last no man's land Event

The online magazine no man's land has been going for ten years now. It started as a side shoot to the Berlin literary magazine and writing lab lauter niemand, with the first issue basically showcasing young German-language writers picked by the team and translated into English. It launched with a bang – my friend Isabel Cole, editor-in-chief throughout, got funding for a print issue, a translation workshop and two readings. I translated one of the texts and attended the events and I remember being very impressed by the whole thing. Since then the magazine has gone online-only (international distribution was too complicated) and relied on submissions of contemporary German poetry and prose from translators. I've been co-editing on the prose side since 2009, alongside (variously) Liesel Tarquini, Alistair Noon and Catherine Hales.

In the meantime, Isabel, Steph Morris and I set up the no man's land translation lab, which is still going strong. It's not rocket science – we meet once a month in a room above a pub and workshop each others' translations – but it has helped forge a very strong literary translation community in Berlin and beyond. I can say it has prompted me to think about and articulate my work in a very clear way and has definitely made me a better translator. Our next lab is on 1 December at 8 p.m., as always in the "library" upstairs at Max & Moritz on Oranienstraße. The format has been adopted by translators in other cities, including Dublin and London. It costs next to nothing and makes me happy.

This Sunday we launch the final issue of no man's land. It will be a bumper issue with some killer pieces by German-language prose writers and poets, plus our first and obviously last literary essay. We also offered the translators a chance to share something about the translation process, which I'm very glad worked out. Ten years feels like a good point to stop and I think we're all proud of the body of work we've accumulated on the website. There are now so many more opportunities for publishing translations than there were ten years ago that we decided it would do no harm for us to stop.

So we're having a party on Sunday. There will be readings from issue #10 and then there will be dancing, with Steph Morris and myself reactivating our old DJ persona Lang 'n' Scheidt (he's very tall; I'm not very good). Retro translator-mafia music, all vinyl, for dancing to. Please come along to ACUD to help us go out with a bang as big as the one we came in with.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Swiss Book Prize to Monique Schwitter

The Schweizer Buchpreis – which goes to German-language books only – has been awarded to Monique Schwitter for her novel Eins im Anderen. I'm pleased because I really enjoyed it. And the judges called it "powerful, humorous and thoughtful". Hooray!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Angela Steidele: Rosenstengel

A novel entangling two stories of homosexual love between real-life historical figures! King Ludwig II of Bavaria and a young doctor charged with looking after his brother Otto at a mental asylum, and Catharina Linck, a.k.a. Anastasius Rosenstengel, and a young woman from 18th-century Halberstadt. Related in letters allegedly found in an archival file that hadn’t been opened since before the war…

This is Angela Steidele’s first novel; an early and unfinished version was nominated for the prestigious Döblin Prize, which is where I first came across it. On Thursday the writer presented the book at the same site, the Literary Colloquium Berlin, and recalled watching a Champions League match afterwards with her wife and Günter Grass. It may have been a true story, or it might even be another convincing fabrication along the lines of Rosenstengel.

As it happens, Dr Franz Carl Müller was the person who pulled Ludwig’s corpse out of Lake Starnberg after the king was certified insane, and he also researched court records on Linck for a study on the history of homosexuality. Ludwig is known to have had “a succession of close friendships with men” and Steidele uses some of his delightfully florid formulations from genuine letters in her imaginary royal missives to Müller.

A hundred and seventy-one years before Ludwig’s death, Catharina Linck was also drowned, in her case as a penalty for “sodomy”. She was raised in a Pietist orphanage, ran away, donned men’s clothing, joined the army and would have been hanged for desertion if she hadn’t revealed herself to be a woman. Under the assumed name of Rosenstengel, she had previously been a wandering prophet and later married a woman, converted to Catholicism and back to Protestantism, and was then shopped by her wife’s distrustful mother, who refused to believe her son-in-law was a man.

So the story is, Müller has collected letters concerning Rosenstengel and they’ve got muddled up with the letters he’s collected concerning Ludwig, including their private correspondence. So what we get is a blow-by-blow description (actually all pretty much safe for work) of the two romances and the surrounding political intrigues. All written in the language of the respective time in the voices of historical figures, which seems to have been a real labour of love.

At times it’s gruesome, particularly the details of nineteenth-century “treatments” for various issues considered illnesses at the time, including homosexuality. The early eighteenth century may still leave the mentally instable in comparative peace, but the accepted views on women are equally terrifying. All this is historically accurate, culled from writing of the time by the figures themselves and others.

It’s also funny. The characters really shine through, my favourite being a radical Pietist by the name of Dorothea Rosina Pott, based on a woman in Halberstadt alleged to have had contact with Linck. Pott is partial to a special herb mixture that keeps her awake longer for extra praying, and loves a good gossip and a spot of one-up-womanship with her correspondent. We also get a few amusing anecdotes (and original poems) from fag-hag extraordinaire Queen Sisi of Austria and a lot of contradicting versions of various events, related as they are by unreliable and untrustworthy witnesses with their own agendas. Plus, apparently, well-placed anachronisms to titillate the well-read reader (I didn’t spot them).

That humour gave me pause; it felt at certain points like it went too far, making the characters appear ridiculous. Part of the joke is that we see things the letter-writers simply don't get, out of naivety, bigotry or ignorance. It’s almost a cliché of creative writing teaching that fiction writers ought to be kind to their characters. And this is fiction, in its own way. Yet I imagine it must be hard to be kind to a character like Paul Julius Westphal, for example, a composite of two doctors. Prof. Carl Westphal, as we learn in the biographies at the back of the book, was the first to define homosexuality as a sickness and died of the after-effects of syphilis, and Dr Paul Julius Möbius “proved” women’s inferiority in numerous books and papers. Perhaps – if we even accept that there should be rules for writers, which is probably not a good idea anyway – we can make an exception here.

Whatever the case, Rosenstengel is a playful piece of literary fiction exploring two pretty fabulous stories. The cover is a delight in high-camp pink and gold and the physical book as a whole – maps, two-colour printing, index of persons – makes the experience even more fun. Those used to British writing might find it a harder prospect than, say, Jeanette Winterson or Sarah Waters' stories of historical gender and sexual issues. The eighteenth-century German in particular took me a while to get into, but once the code was cracked reading went smoothly enough. Translating it, though? That would take a specialist.

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.