Wednesday, 6 April 2016

All The Complaining in One Place

I've written several different articles on the subject of the lack of women in English translation recently. Here are all the links in one place, in order of writing:

Women in Translation: Not Just Bearded Dudes for Bearded Dudes at New Books in German

Women in Translation: Why Does It Matter? at Free Word Centre

Translated fiction by women must stop being a minority in a minority at The Guardian

Der Literaturbetrieb hat ein Problem mit Frauen at Zeit Online

If you'll be at the London Book Fair, we're having an informal meetup to think about how to improve the situation. All welcome: Thursday, 3:30 pm at the English PEN salon. I hope we can now talk some positive talk.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Clemens Meyer Reference Works

I'm on the home straight for my translation of Clemen's Meyer's Im Stein – although we don't have an English title yet. So I thought I'd share my extracurricular reading and reference works for the novel. In order of decreasing naivety.

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes

Let's Sing Together 

The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary

It's all part of the job. Deutsch für die Polizei

A Dictionary of Marxist Thought

Karl Marx: Capital

Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Bobby Cummines: I Am Not a Gangster - Fixer. Armed robber. Hitman. OBE

William T. Vollmann: Whores for Gloria

Rachel Aimee, Eliyanna Kaiser, Audacia Ray (eds.): $pread. The best of the magazine that illuminated the sex industry and started a media revolution

Wolfgang Hilbig, I (trans. Isabel Cole)

David Peace: Tokyo Year Zero

Skip the Games: Escort terms, sex definitions and abbreviations in escort ads

I might have forgotten some.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

My Feelings about My Writers and Your Feelings about David Bowie

I had been puzzled by how strongly people feel about David Bowie's death – the street renamings, the pilgrimages and flowers, the deep sadness, the need to share the tiny encounters or the life-changing effects of particular songs or Top of the Pops appearances. I have a different feeling about death to many people anyway, as a fourth-generation atheist, and have struggled to understand people's reactions in the past. A lot of them felt to me as though people thought the dead person was looking down at them and checking they were behaving suitably. Maybe they did think that, I don't know. When you've never entertained the idea of an afterlife that's hard to relate to. But I have at least learned something about the comforting power of ritual and sharing of grief.

So I had been idly reading various people's responses and it began to dawn on me that I had in fact felt something similar to that one-way devotion to someone who is unaware of your existence. And that's the feeling I have about my writers. I spend months or years mentally immersed in their creative work in a similar way to that time spent listening to favourite songs, poring over lyrics, interpreting their meaning, internalizing the rhythm, singing along at the top of your voice, imagining the song is all about you. Such a joyful teenagerly activity, best performed on a single bed with headphones and spots. I know you don't have to be a teenager to do it; here's the last song that did that to me.

And that's very like what happens to me when I'm translating a novel. It's a work of art that's been created entirely independently of me and even if I know the writer personally, which I usually do but not always, I will always know far more about their work than they do about mine. I will always think I know them far better than they know me – and yes, I know that's wrong thinking. But it's still a joyful activity, wallowing in the writing to create my literary cover versions. Sometimes translators do get romantically involved with their writers. I don't know about that really; it's always a secret yearning, I think, but could it ever be a balanced relationship?

None of my writers has died since I started working on them. It will be devastating, I expect. So now I understand the David Bowie sadness better.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Happy New Stats

Happy 2016! I was in a less-than-creative mood anyway so I did some counting. I'm working on an article on gender imbalance in translated fiction for New Books in German. And I'd found it impossible to find any statistics on books published in German in the first place. So I combed a selection of publishers' catalogues from Spring 2016 and Fall 2015. For the purpose of comparison with other stats, I've included only fiction (novels, novellas, short story collections but no poetry, drama, essays or children's books) written in German and published for the first time. The publishers are thirty literary, genre, indie, major group-linked, small, large, medium houses – but of course this is by no means a comprehensive list. Anyway, here it is.

You'll notice the numbers are surprisingly low. Only 128 original German-language titles published in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in Spring 16, 144 in Fall 2015. Obviously that's because I haven't made any attempt to cover all publishers. But it's also because a lot of translations come out, especially fiction. In Germany in 2013, 11,894 published first editions fell under "German literature" and 6,164 literary translations were published, according to Buch und Buchhandel in Zahlen 2014.

Adding the two seasons together, books authored by women made up 43% of original fiction in my selection.

Going by a previous count of mine, about 30% of fiction translated from German to English was written by women. So something does seem to be getting lost along the way.

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.