Wednesday, 29 February 2012

BTBA 2012 Longlist

They just announced the 25 titles longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. I'm delighted to see three German books among them, including Peter Stamm's Seven Years, translated by Michael Hofmann. I'm even more delighted to see my friends Thomas Pletzinger and (top translator) Ross Benjamin on the list for their book Funeral for a Dog. And to be perfectly honest, I'm over the moon to find Inka Parei's wonderful, wonderful novel The Shadow-Boxing Woman there, which I translated.

Here's what they say:
February 28, 2012—The 25-title fiction longlist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Awards was announced this afternoon. This is the fifth year for the BTBA, which launched in 2007 as a way of highlighting the best works of international literature published in the U.S. in the previous year.
Featuring authors from 14 countries writing in 12 languages, this year’s fiction longlist illustrates the prize’s dedication to literary diversity, ranging from works by established and classic authors, such as Moacyr Scliar’s Kafka’s Leopards and Imre Kertesz’s Fiasco, to works by emerging voices, like Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, and Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman.
The longlist also includes an eclectic mix of translators, from Steve Dolph—whose translation of Juan José Saer’s Scars is his second full-length publication—to world-renowned translators Bill Johnston—who has two entries on this list, Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski and In Red by Magdalena Tulli. As in years past, the list is dominated by smaller independent publishers, such as Dedalus, Seagull Books, Melville House, and Archipelago Books, although a number of larger houses—like W.W. Norton, Knopf, and Bloomsbury—are also represented.
The shortlist will be out on 10 April, but up to then make sure you go to Three Percent regularly for biased and unprofessional hymns in praise of all the longlisted books.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Make Mine a Homonym, Bar Tender! Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand

Blogging about Wolfgang Herrndorf is quite fun because I know his editor. So what happens is, I write something vaguely contentious about Wolfgang Herrndorf, Wolfgang Herrndorf denies the vaguely contentious thing, and his editor relays this information to me. To which I reply, Well that’s how I remember it and I was there too. At which point his editor says, Wolfgang Herrndorf says he’d never do such a thing, and I say, Well, maybe I misinterpreted it then. And everybody’s happy. So just to set the record straight: Wolfgang Herrndorf denies having done that vaguely contentious thing I accused him of here

This time I don’t have much to say about Wolfgang Herrndorf except that I saw him riding his bike down Torstraße once last year, which is kind of unexciting. He indicated correctly and then turned left. Try denying that, Wolfgang Herrndorf! My other not that exciting anecdote is that I sat sort of opposite a different Rowohlt editor on the train to the Leipzig book fair two years ago, when Wolfgang Herrndorf’s previous novel Tschick was nominated for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair. And during the journey the editor got a phone call to inform him that Wolfgang Herrndorf had been cruelly robbed of the award, which everyone sitting around him picked up on because he was so sad about it. We all grimaced and averted our eyes in embarrassment.

Luckily this time Wolfgang Herrndorf is in with another chance with Sand. I’m not taking the train this year, so I’ll have to just wait for the awards ceremony to see if he wins. Meanwhile, I read the novel ages ago but kept getting distracted from writing about it. So this “review” might be a bit vague. Sorry about that.
It’s set in a fictional corner of the Maghreb in 1972. While I was reading it I kept wondering whether Wolfgang Herrndorf went on holiday to Tunisia with his parents in 1972, but that’s probably irrelevant. The setting is important because of all the sand, and the timing because of all the spies, but it may well have been influenced more by William Burroughs and Mike Murphy than any first-hand experience, what do I know?

The story opens quite slowly with a slightly incompetent French police detective who has to deal with a young man accused of shooting multiple European hippies in their commune. Then there’s a beautiful American woman just arrived to rep cosmetics. And a dead spy with a Scandinavian name who came to deliver a strange piece of equipment. But 85 pages in everybody’s been introduced and we cut to the action. Which is fine really because there are still another nearly 400 pages to go.

A man wakes up in the desert and doesn’t know who he is. And nor do we, which is one of the excellent things about the novel. He crosses the path of the American beauty, who takes him under her wing. But then he’s accosted by a local gangster, who seems to have kidnapped a wife and child our man didn’t know he had. In return for their lives he wants – a mine.

Now this is where we linguists have to suspend our disbelief. If you’re not a linguist you’re going to find this paragraph incredibly petty, so just skip it. If you are a linguist, the book may well be fatally flawed for you, because much of the plot pivots on the fact that the German word Mine has three homonyms (I hope that’s the right term – I’m only a pretend linguist really): like in English, the mine where you dig for gold and the small explosive device, plus an ink refill for a pen. But in the novel, the characters who mention the Mine are speaking French. Well, logic dictates that they’re speaking French – the book being in German, their speech is rendered in German too. But as far as I can tell, only two of the three meanings apply in French, strictly speaking. I’m pretty sure about this and I checked with my cousin and my French auntie, but I’m willing to admit I’m wrong if anyone knows better because my French is abysmal. Whatever the case, this majorly niggled at me all the way through. I know, I should get a life.

Anyway, the mystery man attempts to get hold of the mystery item, while attempting to find out who he is and attempting not to fall in love with the American beauty. As Mike Murphy would put it, there is violence, cold-bloodedness and even cruelty! Meanwhile, Wolfgang Herrndorf (or should I say, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s narrator) plays with his readers as if we were cats chasing a string. Each chapter is headed with a quote, slanting the content ever so slightly. From Herodot on Africa to Hitchcock on psychoanalysis to Ulla Berkéwitz on, ummm, evolution, my favourite is attributed to someone called Marek Hahn and goes: “‘Allusions, there are allusions in this book,’ I thought, ‘I want my money back.’” At which point Wolfgang Herrndorf throws us poor kitty-cats a huge feathery string with a bell on it, in the form of an Asterix comic. Very nice.

I can’t really tell you much else about the plot because it’s a very plot-driven book. So let me tell you about the writing instead. It’s enjoyable, intelligent, not overly wordy but infused with subtle humour, as they say. A great deal more literary than any spy thriller but less literary than Reinhard Jirgl. It would be fun to translate. It was fun to read. It’s been reviewed very favourably and has been doing very well as far as I know. And guess what? My friend Isabel Bogdan is mentioned in the credits at the back. So it must be good.

Also, I hear translation rights for Tschick (my review) have sold to the States, so maybe one day Sand will be available in English too. Plenty of homonym fun for the lucky translator!

Update: Wolfgang Herrndorf's editor has kindly informed me that mine can in fact mean a ballpoint refill in French. It's not in any of the five paper dictionaries I looked in, nor in two online bilingual dictionaries, but is is in the PONS online French-German dictionary. My attempts to search for the terms "stylo bille mine" left me in a great deal of confusion followed by days of advertising banners for French stationery. So there you go. Obscure but probably true. Sorry it took me so long to correct this - I was hideously embarrassed at admitting my ignorance.

And Sand has also won the public vote for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, which I believe Tschick did too. No doubt his editor will correct me if I'm wrong.    

Friday, 24 February 2012

Hooray for Tim Mohr

May I call your attention to an article in the Wiener Zeitung about the US translator Tim Mohr? Actually it's not altogether fresh, because when I first read it I was so envious of Mr Mohr that I had to spend two weeks sulking. A lovely, ethusiastic two-page piece about him, written by Klaus Stimeder, whose essay "Hier ist Berlin" Mohr seems to have translated. Because the world's been waiting for "the definitive essay" about Berlin, especially in English. Whatever. Mohr seems to be also writing a book about punk rock in the GDR, which is cool because there really isn't anything much about that in English. And everyone tells me he's delightful and really cool and a good DJ, and he translates Charlotte Roche and Alina Bronsky, and he slagged off Daniel Kehlmann, and I really shouldn't be as envious as I am.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

German Lit in New Zealand

Did you know this year's guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair is New Zealand? Hooray! That means German bookstores will be flooded with antipodean writing come the autumn, with events galore to go with it. But it also means New Zealanders get a bit of extra literary love from German writers too.

The first exciting thing is the Temporary Literaturhaus in Wellington. It's just like a German Literaturhaus, combining book-related events for adults and children, only it's temporary and it's in Wellington. Watch out for all sorts of exciting things popping up, including my favourite Inka Parei. Plus you can catch the delightful Jenny Erpenbeck at the New Zealand International Arts Festival, on her own and on a panel discussing translation. From 9 March.

In terms of reading material, bloggers should go to An Aotearoa Affair - highlighting German and NZ writers in the run-up to the book fair. And everyone should get hold of Sport, issue 40 featuring 23 fantastic and amazing German-language writers translated into English and available from March.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Olga Grjasnowa: Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt

And on the subject of literature with an agenda, here's some I very much enjoyed. Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt is a debut novel by Olga Grjasnowa, a young writer originally from Azerbaijan. Who is lovely, I've met her twice now. Her first-person narrator Maria (Mascha) Kogan is living in Frankfurt with her partner Elias, a photographer who injures his leg and ends up in hospital very early on. Maria is in her mid-twenties and also originally from Baku. She is studying to become an interpreter, a very ambitious student who speaks French, German, Russian, English and Arabic. We learn gradually that her parents are Russian Jews and that the family emigrated to Germany in 1996. Elias’s injury is complicated and his recovery is slow. In one impressive scene, Mascha spots an injured rabbit outside the hospital while Elias is being operated on. Not knowing any prayers, she decides to strike a bargain with God – he can have the rabbit but not Elias. She drops a heavy stone on the animal to smash its skull, a startling scene that characterises Mascha perfectly.

Elias survives and we see more of their relationship. The elephant in the room is Mascha’s trauma over her childhood in Baku. Elias feels hurt because she has never told him why the family left. She does manage to tell him a story – about a seven-year-old child whose father took her to her grandmother’s house. A young woman was shot, falling to the ground at the child’s feet and staining her shoes and her face with her blood. At this point the narrator breaks off and tells the story of the civil war in Azerbaijan, starting from 1987. Territorial dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, demonstrations, pogroms, mass movement of minority Armenians and Azerbaijanis on either side of the border, an outpouring of nationalism, and on 13 January 1990 a pogrom in Baku itself, with members of the new National Front going from house to house and slaughtering Armenians. “My father tugged at my arm to make me hurry up. My grandmother’s house was only three streets away. By the time I got there my childhood was over.”

Russian tanks arrive, war breaks out in Nagorno-Karabakh, a million Azerbaijani refugees from there camping on the streets, gas, electricity and water shortages. The intelligentsia and the mafia leave and the Kogan family desperately seek a way out, remembering their Jewish identity. Some go to Israel and are fired on by Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Mascha’s branch opts for Germany, which accepts Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union – even though her grandmother was in a concentration camp and “the ashes are still warm”. Settled outside of Frankfurt, her parents' life revolves around the synagogue, which has a sideline selling kosher wine, and the ex-pat community where Georgian wine is the tipple of choice. Mascha is the rebellious success story of the family. She soon realises that languages are the key to survival in Germany. Speaking good German gains her more respect and better treatment: “Applications were granted according to the thickness of our accents.” 

When Elias dies unexpectedly, Mascha blames herself for not waking up in time to save him. “The Talmud tells us to commemorate the dead. If I’d had it on hand I’d have thrown it in a furnace. But it was in some box or other with my videotape of Schindler’s List.” After an awful funeral, Mascha returns to their flat and withdraws into herself, imagining Elias is coming home at any moment. She somehow manages to take her finals and then sleeps her way into a job with a German foundation in Tel Aviv.
From here on the novel plays out in Israel. Here, the atmosphere is oppressive from the outset. Many Israelis are hostile to Mascha because she speaks Arabic but not Hebrew. The army security team at the airport shoots holes in her laptop, their suspicions alerted by the Arabic characters on the keyboard. Her job is hardly a challenge – translating the odd report on exchange programmes or women’s groups, activities referred to as “Arab-hugging”. She has some contact to her relatives here, Russians leading morose lives barricaded into illegal settlements because they had no idea of the politics when they first arrived. And she becomes sexually involved with a local brother and sister.

Although she had seen Israel as a way out, Mascha feels increasingly pressurised by her personal and political situation. As her mental state spirals downwards, the omnipresent weapons and uniforms remind her of the neighbours killed in Baku. In the end her concerned friends in Germany sign her up for the UN interpreting exam and she hands in her notice after a particularly degrading day at work. But before she leaves, her Israeli lover Tal asks her to accompany her and a group of activists to Ramallah as an interpreter.

In the final section, Mascha enters Palestine with the group but climbs out of a window and goes AWOL in the West Bank, where she meets a wedding photographer who turns out to be a former Hamas fighter. Here too, people are hostile to her: her dress is too short so she must be a whore, but if she wears something longer she’ll look like an Israeli settler and fears she’ll be attacked for that too. The soldiers are even younger than in Israel. The NGOs at every turn seem to her like a new form of colonisation. Appalled by the squalor, Mascha finally loses it at a wedding and wanders the streets again, reminded of her childhood. She thinks back to that traumatic day and we finally hear the whole story.

What’s exciting about the novel is that Olga Grjasnowa really captures a political and personal mood quite common among the younger generation. Mascha and her friends in Germany are close to what we might call post-identity politics. They are sick of being stereotyped as Turks, Arabs, Russians, Jews or even east Germans. They want to lead their own lives free from the expectations of their parents and society – in terms of sexuality and their working lives, where they choose to live, and so on. And yet Mascha ultimately can’t escape the trauma of her personal origins. As such, the book doesn’t offer any easy answers, just as it raises more questions than solutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite the deep sadness and hopelessness that pervade the novel, Grjasnowa has managed to infuse it with subtle and cynical humour. Even at moments of extreme stress, she has an eye for the bizarre – for instance a memorial for a Palestinian “martyr” decorated with a life-sized portrait of the deceased, pointing a machine gun at his own resting place. Or an overly correct German who treats Mascha as the personification of all things Jewish and defends Israel to the hilt, only to crop up in Jerusalem again as a rabid supporter of the Palestinians. Through a large cast of minor characters, Grjasnowa gives us a detailed portrayal of the young generation in Germany and Israel. The language is taut and at times poetic, using some great images. Grjasnowa picks up the motif of the murdered woman to bring us to a satisfactory end in the literary sense, if not the personal one for her character.

I was very affected by the novel. It left me feeling sad but very thoughtful, showed the issue of Israel and Palestine in an unusual light, and highlighted the little-known conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The childhood perspective in the Baku sections contrasts well with the clever, cynical adult narrator. Grjasnowa deliberately avoids many of the clichés that have become expected of “migrant writers” in Germany, such as the use of folkloric elements and loan translations and of course the serving up of simple stereotypes. As such, the novel makes for a more challenging read than many of her immediate contemporaries, putting into practice what a number of writers have been debating in recent years. This is an overtly political book that I hope causes a stir. And a little bird tells me it's going to be available in English at some point too.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Kracht and Diez and Woodard

So now we have a nice fat literary scandal. Spiegel critic Georg Diez this week wrote about the Swiss novelist and travel writer Christian Kracht, about how his new novel Imperium "above all shows the author's vicinity to extreme right-wing ideas." The piece is not online. Then a heck of a lot of other critics reacted the next day, saying Diez had missed the irony, humour, subtlety, or whatever, and in one case suggesting Kracht attracts envy because of his wealthy background. Kracht's (and Diez's) publishers Kiepenheuer & Witsch issued a press release saying Diez had "perfidiously placed the author in the pillory" and pointing out that nobody else had found the book racist (so they obviously hadn't read the taz review then, in which Andreas Fanizadeh did in fact cautiously point out a few uncomfortable points). The publisher Helge Malchow says he's considering writing his own response in defence of Kracht in next week's Spiegel.

What exactly is going on here? First of all I have to point out I have read none of Kracht's work so I cannot judge whether Imperium does indeed harbour or promote or fail to distance itself from racist ideas. It's a highly fictionalised account of the early-twentieth-century German August Engelhardt, who moved to the colony of German-New Guinea to start a community of cocovores, radical vegetarians who existed on a diet of coconuts and inevitably got sick and died. As Diez points out, there was another, more prominent radical vegetarian in German history, to whom Kracht refers several times in the novel. In fact he also extends Engelhardt's life until after the end of WWII,  Diez argues so as to enhance the parallels to Hitler. Of course, the setting of the novel means Kracht has to depict racist mindsets - and yet Diez for one is troubled by the intransparency of the narrator's standpoint. This writer, he says, has a fascination with dictatorships and evil but never quite reveals where he stands on the issue, while it occupies a growing place in his writing.

But it's on the last of the article's four pages that Diez cuts to the quick. Because here he turns to Kracht's friend David Woodard. The two of them last year published a compendium of their email correspondence, which was generally reviewed with bored shrugs. Perhaps the weight of all that communication dulled the reviewers' senses, because some of the quotes Diez obviously underlined at the time are hair-raising. The two of them admiringly bandy about names of right-wing populists and out-and-out Nazis and - this is the important bit - discuss the Paraguayan Aryan settlement Nueva Germania. You can read about Woodard's involvement in this community in a 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can also see on this website that Woodard was working on a novel - I can only assume on the same subject - that was supposed to be published by Blumenbar Verlag in 2009. It was not. I'd be interested to find out why not.

Is it a coincidence that Kracht chose a very similar subject for Imperium? Certainly it reflects the two men's common fascination with German oddballs who set up colonies in far-flung places, only to fail. Of course Diez can't do much more than ask similar questions himself, the writing being extremely slippery. And that's one reason why I've never read Kracht's work. Incidentally, his non-fiction book The Ministry of Truth, depicting Kim Jong Il's North Korea, is available in English, published by Feral House, a US publisher with an apparent and perhaps fitting part-focus on occultism, serial killers, Nazism, "exposing Muslim fundamentalism" and dictatorships. Other authors they publish include Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. The disclaimer reads: "Feral House does not support or justify Kaczynski's crimes, nor does the author receive royalties or compensation for this book. It is this publisher’s mission, as well as a foundation of the First Amendment, to allow the reader the ability to discern the value of any document."Many of the images on the publisher's website would be banned under German law.

My opinion on the whole mess? I'd like to congratulate Georg Diez for finally drawing attention to the issue. There's no denying that Christian Kracht works his fascination for what I'd call evil into his writing, through his choice of subject matter alone. Outside of his fiction, he clearly fails to distance himself from white-supremacist ideas, even publishing that failure as embodied in his correspondence with Woodard. Fiction, being fiction, doesn't have to do that. But I prefer it when it does. Whether Christian Kracht is indeed a modern-day equivalent to Ezra Pound and a "doorman for radical right-wing ideas", ushering them into the mainstream as Diez claims, is perhaps still open. Certainly, however, I don't think white supremacism is a laughing matter - and thus other critics' accusations of a lack of sense of humour on Diez's part ring rather hollow in my ears. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Generation Germany Goes UK

Brits! March is the month to catch outstanding German writers on your very own turf! To wit:  Clemens Meyer at Edinburgh's Wee Red Bar on 13 March and Leeds Central Library on the 14th. And before that, Jan Brandt at UCL with Joe Dunthorne and Philip Oltermann under the teeth-hurting title of Generation X Reflects on 7 March.

Clemens Meyer is a super-talented writer with a penchant for all things gloomy. You can – no, you should – read my translation of his short stories All the Lights, to discover how excellent writing lifts you out of a gloom. Joe Dunthorne has written an impressive, witty, entertaining short novel about growing up in Wales which has been made into a film. Jan Brandt has written an impressive, witty, entertaining very long novel about growing up in East Frisia which has been somehow made into a live radio play. Philip Oltermann has written a book I haven't read yet about Anglo-German encounters. 

I believe Mr Brandt will also be holding public readings in Oxford and Cambridge. And also hanging out with students in London. Mr Meyer will no doubt also be out and about sampling the delights of Edinburgh. So keep your eyes peeled!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Leipzig Shortlist

As temperatures rise to almost not quite freezing cold, things are hotting up in the literary year as well. The nominations for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair are just out, and very exciting they are too. Probably the second most important award for German-language literature, it consists of fiction, non-fiction and translation categories.

And the fiction nominees are:

Anna Katharina Hahn, Am schwarzen Berg

Jens Sparschuh, Im Kasten

Sherko Fatah, Ein weißes Land

Thomas von Steinaecker, Das Jahr, in dem ich aufhörte, mir Sorgen zu machen, und anfing zu träumen

Wolfgang Herrndorf, Sand

I just finished reading Sand and will post a review soon. Plus I have the Steinaecker book on my kitchen worktop. And Sherko Fatah I expect is a monster of a book, in a very good way. A very strong list this year.

You can listen to audio extracts at literaturport.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Inside New Books in German

Everybody knows New Books in German, right? The UK's most fantastic vehicle for promoting literature written in German? To English-speaking readers, translators and publishers? Via two online and print issues a year? Edited by the amazing Charlotte "Energy Bundle" Ryland? Funded by Austria, Switzerland and Germany?

Good. Well, I happened to be in London at the same time as their editorial meeting, and I kind of invited myself along. The idea is, German-language publishers send the cream of their crop to NBG, and a crack team of experts selects about sixty titles that they reckon could work on the British market. Of course nowadays they cooperate with the German Book Office in New York so the American market is covered too. Anyway, the sixty books are sent off to sixty readers who each write a short report on their respective merits - but the idea is to be tough so that not just any old guff ends up in the magazine. And the editorial meeting is there to decide which books to feature on the pages of NBG.

But what actually happens behind the closed doors of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Range Rover Central, London SW7? I hear you ask. Ah, well let me enlighten you.

This time there were a record eighteen attendees, a bit of a mixed bag. According to the website, "editorial advisers are brought in for each issue, including a literary agent, a publisher, a translator and a bookseller." That's quite funny actually - but maybe you had to be there - because there was rather a wealth of translators, including - gasp! - Anthea Bell OBE, which nearly made me faint. Luckily there was a tea break for fawning purposes. There were also representatives of a number of cultural bodies, who were great because if there was an Austrian author, for instance, you could ask: Do you know them? Are they OK? And they'd say: Weeeelll, ye-es, not my cup of tea but very popular, or Ohhh, yes, fabulous, or: No, he's a complete vainglorious idiot.* Also, having a bookseller there was great because he knew what people actually buy in bookshops - and what they don't. Of course we translators had something to add too, although it was mostly anecdotes about how terribly nice the writers are.*

Anyway, we waded right in and voted on which books to take, covering children's and young adults' fiction plus non-fiction and fiction for adults. And I found myself talking rather a lot, no doubt unnecessarily, in an attempt to legitimise my presence in some way. But in fact most people had very sensible opinions and it was an object lesson in human nature. There were the eternal optimists, the passionate waverers, and best of all a couple of excellent Eyoreish sceptics. Just so nobody thought they were doing the world a favour.

And then there were the issues to consider. Can you expect kids to take an interest in long-dead political systems in foreign countries? (Probably not.) What percentage of non-fiction titles dealing with Nazis is OK? (Not 100%.) Does anyone give a monkeys about experimental fiction? (Perhaps not but it's still cool.) Are we topheavy on the crime front and low on love stories? (I made that one up but there were some questions of balance raised.) Then there was apple strudel. And then we went to the pub.

What's the point of the whole lot of you reading sixty-odd reports and putting together this very attractive magazine? I hear you ask. Ah, well let me explain.

German-language publishers benefit in a major way if their book ends up in NBG, mainly because it means publishers translating that book into English are entitled to funding. Which means they're more likely to do so in the first place. What doesn't happen is that Amy Editor curls up with a cup of cocoa and a copy of NBG and chooses which German book to publish this season. You still need to call Amy Editor's attention to your book, but its profile will be that little bit higher. Also, people will be that mite more aware of your author, so they're more likely to invite her to the UK and the US for glamorous lecture tours and the like. What you don't want to do, as a German publisher, is submit your third-most-exciting book of the season, on the assumption that your whizz-banging humdinger is going to sell like hot cakes and doesn't need any help. Every book needs help to make it into English. NBG is there to ease the way - and also to showcase just how fantastic writing in German is.

Of course it's not just the book reports. New Books in German is also a useful resource for finding out what's been published recently, and each issue also offers feature articles. This upcoming one is a bit heavy on the pieces written by me, but that's just a coincidence and won't be a regular fixture. I wouldn't want to annoy people. Oh, and they also organise a big flashy party during the London Book Fair, which I shall be attending this year. I already have a new dress and some bargainacious shoes.

* Not really.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Schlegel Tieck Prize to Damion Searls

Ha! This time I have spelt Damion Searls' name correctly and shall congratulate him wholeheartedly on winning the Schlegel Tieck Prize for the best translation from German published in the United Kingdom of a “work of literary merit and general interest”. Deep breath. He got it for his rendering of Hans Keilson's Comedy in a Minor Key, which I haven't read. He's on a roll - remember when he got the Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize and I spelt his name wrong?

Anyway, it was awarded last night at a glitzy ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall attended by the Queen and Kate Middleton, followed by a lecture by Albert Einstein on the politics of translating nuclear physics. Other translation awards were presented there too, which you can read about in the TLS. There was champagne.

Now without in any way wishing to diminish Damion Searls' magnificent achievement, I feel I must point out that this is the fourth time running that the Schlegel Tieck Prize has gone to a translation of an old book (in this case dating from 1947) rather than contemporary literature. You can peruse the past winners here. I don't know whether that's symptomatic of what gets translated into English or of the extra special challenges posed by older writing, or indeed a sign of the judges' taste. You'll also notice a leaning towards all things Nazi-related, but I guess that's one of those things about German literature. A lot of it does have Nazis in it, and an even higher percentage of the German literature that gets published in English does, certainly.

Once I get on that prize committee I shall change all that, of course. Right after I open up my fantasy publishing house and start bringing out plenty of contemporary German writing. I hope it's not too much of a conflict of interests.

Anyway, congratulations, Damion Searls!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Hermann Hesse Prize to Susan Bernofsky

Congratulations to Susan Bernofsky, who receives the €15,000-Hermann Hesse Prize from Hesse's birthplace of Calw, as trade mag Börsenblatt reports.

The bi-annual award goes alternately to translators of Hesse and literary magazines, and Susan will be given it at a ceremony in July for her translation of Siddharta and for her work as a whole. The judges gave a rather good explanation, saying that her translations:
are characterised by the attempt to remain as close as possible to the original; they maintain the style by re-forming its key structural elements, following the musicality of the original texts, doing without superficial modernisations as well as Manneristic archaisations and thus making the state of the language at the time the originals were written visible, without making access unnecessarily difficult for modern readers.
Quite. Congratulations, Susan!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

RIP Helmut Frielinghaus

Helmut Frielinghaus was a translator, editor and writer. He was born in 1931 and spent part of the 1950s in Madrid then working as a senior editor at Rowohlt, Claassen and Luchterhand. He went freelance in 1991 and moved to New York in 1995, from where he sent dispatches on 9/11 for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He returned to Hamburg in 2002, although he also had strong ties to the UK with a home in Sussex. He translated Raymond Carver, Nicholson Baker, John Updike and William Faulkner, often working with his partner Susanne Höbel, and edited Günter Grass. He received the Bundesverdienstkreuz in 2008.

I had the privilege of meeting him in 2009, when he gave a workshop on creative writing for literary translators. It was held in the small town of Wolfenbüttel, not far from where Frielinghaus grew up, and the assignment for the class was to write about a morning in that town. During the course of the day, he revealed that he had loathed the place as a child, forced to spend long, dull afternoons traipsing round the medieval town centre. Yet he still had an open ear for those participants who enthused about the quaint narrow alleyways and timbered facades. I was struck by his honesty and calm judgement - he was not one to give false encouragement to people he did not think had talent, but when he expressed praise it was heartfelt. He knew and loved good literature, and he had a mischievous sense of humour.

Helmut Frielinghaus died on Sunday after a long illness. He will be sorely missed by many of us translators in Germany, and also by Günter Grass, who dedicated him a poem in memoriam. You can read it at Die Zeit.