Friday, 31 May 2013

Walking with David Wagner

I'm really enjoying my side project, Going Dutch with German Writers. This time I went out drinking walking with David Wagner. The poor guy must get tired of going on walks with people who want to write about the experience, as he's one of those great walker-writers everybody loves. But he didn't let it show.

Peter Stamm: Always the Bridesmaid

Poor old Swiss writer Peter Stamm. He's constantly being nominated for prizes, and hardly ever gets them. He's been in the running for the Bachmann Prize (1999), the German Book Prize (2009), the Swiss Book Prize (2008 & 2011), the Best Translated Book Award (2012) and the Man Booker International Prize (2013). In 2006 he was shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award, and now he is again, for his collection We're Flying (trans. Michael Hofmann).

In fact he's the only translated writer on that shortlist, which probably reflects the fact that few short story collections get translated into English in the first place. You may recall Tim Parks accusing him of writing explicitly for the sake of getting translated, in a strange case of what I now suspect was a misunderstanding. Parks noted that Stamm writes plain, unadorned prose and assumed that was a deliberate tactic to make the medicine go down in translation. Which is something Parks himself has since stated he does in his own writing, to some extent, but Stamm has always said he doesn't. I got terribly upset about it at the time. Anyway, as far as I understand they're now big buddies after Parks invited Stamm to a conference on the subject in Italy - but not big enough buddies for Stamm to win the Man Booker even though Parks was on the jury.

Poor guy. Let's all cross our fingers for him this time, shall we? €25,000!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Isabel Cole Presents: Franz Fühmann

My dear friend Isabel Cole is a source of inspiration at the best of times. She founded the magazine no man's land and co-founded the no man's land translation lab with me. She writes and translates and has many other talents, including cooking and arguing and knowing when to stop drinking and go home. She's also wonderfully passionate about the writers she loves. Most of whom happen to be dead, which means we will never have to fight over them.

Even more inspiringly, her translation of Franz Fühmann's The Jew Car is now out from Seagull Books. I can't very well review it because I read through part of her translation, so obviously I'm going to think it's excellent, aren't I? But you should know that the book is fascinating and revealing and beautifully written.
Each story presents a snapshot of a personal and historical turning point in the life of the narrator, beginning with childhood anti-Semitism and moving to a youthful embrace—and then an ultimate rejection—of Nazi ideology. With scathing irony and hallucinatory intensity, reflections on the nature of memory, and the individual experience of history, the cycle acquires the weight of a novel.
Isabel's passion is infectious and it makes her translation glow. Oh yes. You can see her glowing in person on 13 June in New York. I think it's at the Goethe Institut, I think it's hosted by the Bridge Series, and I think she'll be rubbing shoulders with three other bundles of awesomeness, namely Tess Lewis, Ross Benjamin and Tim Mohr.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Kleist Would Have Blogged

Heinrich von Kleist has a website, although it's not updated all that often. It says:
Societal reform ideas and literary experiments went hand in hand for Kleist. He joined the Prussian army at the age of fifteen and left seven years later as a lieutenant, he studied philosophy, physics, mathematics and political science in the city of his birth, Frankfurt (Oder) and was always interested in technology, education and administration.
Apparently he was a nomad who craved recognition but didn't get it, finally despairing of life and committing suicide. But before that he published two different journals, Phöbus and Berliner Abendblätter. While they weren't mere vehicles for his writing, Kleist did place a lot of his own material in them. Nobody bought them though, and both of them folded for financial reasons. I imagine without the burden of printing costs and the fallings-out with his co-editors, Kleist could have gone on sharing his work in self-run journals for much longer. And with a taste for literary experiment and technology, you know he'd have had his own blog. I think his desire for fame and his sense of urgency are quite characteristic for bloggers. If his letters are anything to go by, he'd have been a hit on Twitter too.

But the main reason why Kleist would have blogged is his 1805 essay "Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden". In it, he explains how just talking to someone else about your ideas helps you to formulate them. Thoughts don't have to be fully rounded to share them with others; you learn a great deal by voicing incomplete ideas.
The French say, l'appetit vient en mangeant, and that voice of experience remains true if one parodies it and says, l'idee vient en parlant.
Blogging, for me, is frequently a way of voicing my thoughts. I often write quite quickly, before ideas have had time to settle. In these cases, I work them out as I go along - but because I don't feel I'm forcing anyone to read them, it doesn't matter to me that they're rather nascent. Kleist writes about the look on his sister's face when he tells her things. I feel I get that minimum of feedback through the comments function, and I'm always grateful for comments, even though I don't always want to enter into a fully fledged discussion.

I've been thinking about the differences between literary blogging and literary criticism or professional journalism. Perhaps I'm being naive here, but my guess is that critics and journalists usually know what they're going to write before they sit down and do so. Kleist writes that speaking about ideas that are already complete is an act that takes the excitement out of the speaker (I'm reminded of many a dull lecture). Just because a thought is expressed in a confused manner, says Kleist, doesn't mean it's been thought in a confused way.

And that's what I love about blogging - the opportunity for instant publishing, for sharing incomplete ideas and developing them like in a conversation. Only it's a conversation that stays in the world, a conversation you can look up and return to and add to and really build up a considered opinion over a longer period of time. *Plus - as I'm doing right this instant between the asterisks - you can update your posts and refine them and just type in something that occurred to you a little while later, correct any slips, add in extra witty comments, and so forth.* L'idee vient en bloggant. Kleist would have loved it.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Happy Fiftieth Birthday, LCB

The Literary Colloquium Berlin is fifty years old; you can read all about their history in English here. It is, on the outside, a villa by a lake on the western edge of Berlin. On the inside it's a guesthouse for writers and translators, a venue for literary events, a meeting place for those involved in literature in Berlin and the rest of the world. The LCB has a very welcoming atmosphere, something I've always found counter-intuitive, perhaps because of the dark, panelled downstairs rooms that look like it ought to be an elitist institution; it isn't, in the sense that what the LCB is interested in is good writing, no matter who happens to be behind it.

Last night the colloquium began celebrating its anniversary with a party. There were speeches, and drinks, and food, and later on there was dancing. They've made a book to remember it all by, S-Bahn nach Arkadien, isolated copies of which were floating around at the event. I was allowed to view one for a short while and was very taken by it. The light wasn't great but the photos still looked wonderful, all taken by the in-house team of Renate von Mangold and Tobias Bohm. The most delightful thing about it is that various writers and former guests (myself included) contributed very short pieces to make up an encyclopaedia of all things LCB. You can read eleven of the entries at the Tagesspiegel (one of mine included).

The speeches were genuinely interesting. I hadn't realised before last night just how much a product of the Cold War the LCB was. Founded in 1963 with a Ford Foundation grant by Walter Höllerer, the institution seems to have given writers a place to gather and talk and work in West Berlin; literary culture almost as an antidote to the leeching of commerce and industry following the Berlin Wall's construction. We heard a number of stories about how grey West Berlin was at the time and how the LCB then began to attract more and more writers to the city. We heard about how Höllerer apparently reformed the dull institution of the literary event, making readings less full-frontal barrages and more about dialogue. Above all, we heard Michael Krüger, just about to retire as head of the prestigious Hanser publishing house. Krüger gave us his version of events, having grown up just around the corner and hung out with all manner of local writers and poets as a young man. It was a subjective impression that masqueraded at times as objective truth, especially concerning what he felt the 1968 rebellion did to literary culture. It was certainly entertaining, and not at all wrong to have a man who represents the past fifty years of German letters speaking on this occasion.

However, all the looking back left no time to look forward. The encumbent managing director, Ulrich Janetzki, will be taking retirement at the same time as Krüger, at the end of this year. His successor was in the audience but kept a low profile: Walter Höllerer's son Florian Höllerer, who comes from the Stuttgart Literaturhaus. With all due respect to Ulrich Janetzki - and a great deal of respect is due to him for his outstanding work over the past 27 years - I'd have liked to hear from "Höllerer Junior", as he was patronisingly called a few times.

One thing I hope Florian Höllerer will manage is to break down the appearance of sexism within the LCB. It may have something to do with the all-male board of trustees, or perhaps time has rather stood still somewhere else in the colloquium's inner workings. Whatever the cause, the staff structure of the LCB appears to reflect the view of history with which Krüger presented us last night: one  entirely devoid of women in responsible positions. This is going to sound disrespectful; it isn't meant to be, because I know many of the wonderful women and men who work at the LCB, and I know they're open to honest criticism and willing to take it on board where they can. The men who make up the public face of the institution - Janetzki, the superb Jürgen Jakob Becker, Thomas Geiger and Thorsten Dönges (and of course the building's beating heart and reliable backbone, Olaf Rode) - do excellent work, supported by Inga Niemann, Nadja Grabsch, Claudia Schütze, Corinna Ziegler, Christine Wagner, Alexandra Küchner, Kerstin Lammers and Barbara Kopsch and various interns (usually female). I know none of them are chauvinists. Yet the structures are such that the LCB retains an air of powerful, visible men receiving the respect and credit, while women take on the smaller, supporting and administrative roles.

There is a photo on the wall of the LCB's auditorium, showing a meeting of the Gruppe 47 in the same room. Everyone in the picture is male - and the room is full. The first time I saw it there, almost all the portraits of other writers around it also showed men. That's changed now. Today Die Welt published a few statistics about gender imbalance in the German literary establishments. No great surprises: women are underrepresented among prizewinners, in responsible positions and in prestigious academies. Women read significantly more than men. The LCB is a small institution and it can't turn the wheel around all on its own. But I hope the coming fifty years see women becoming a more visible force at the LCB than they were during its first half-century. I hope that at the hundredth anniversary celebration - hell, even at the sixtieth! - one of the speeches is held by a woman, that women are named among the great writers the LCB has fostered, that women are celebrated as well as men. Women are producing excellent writing in Germany and the LCB has supported many of them. As I wrote above, it has never felt like an elitist place to me. It just needs to project that fact a little more effectively.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

German Book Porn

Today the Stiftung Buchkunst announced the 25 most beautiful German books of 2013. Unfortunately, they didn't include any links. So here are the winners in the "general literature" category. Follow the link above to find out more about academic titles, non-fiction, art books, children's books, etc.

Katherine Mansfield
In einer deutschen Pension
Büchergilde Gutenberg – Frankfurt

Markus Färber
Rotopolpress – Kassel

Hendrik Jackson
Im Licht der Prophezeiungen
kookbooks – Berlin

Peggy Parnass
Schwarze Kunst – Grethem-Büchten,
Edition Klaus Raasch – Hamburg

JAK / Hamed Taheri
EXP.edition – Stuttgart

They'll choose one of the 25 as "most beautiful book of the year", a title which comes with €10,000 and is announced in September. One previous winner you may be aware of is Judith Schalansky, for her Atlas of Remote Islands. And you can read an interview with her on the subject of book design on the Goethe Institut website. Schalansky is a rather vocal proponent of the book as physical object, which is why I'm surprised by the headline - Books are not a form of fetishism. I'm surprised because I think that's pretty much exactly what she says in the interview - that physical books are fetish objects for her personally. In a sort of vaguely Marxist sense, you know? (I'm a little under the weather so I can't explain this properly.) And perhaps it sounds insulting but it's not really meant to be, because I suspect most of us feel the same way to some extent.

Schalansky is in charge of a series of books for the Berlin publishers Matthes & Seitz, called Naturkunden. They're books about nature, basically, with illustrations and good design. The latest is a collection of watercolours of apples and pears by a Catholic priest and pomologist. The book costs €98 and is no doubt a beautiful object. I wish my head didn't hurt quite so much so that I could draw a parallel to fetishism here without upsetting anyone.

Anyway, if you like your book porn in audiovisual form, there's a video about what the Stiftung Buchkunst look for in a beautiful book.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Asymptote Translation Contest

Translation-themed journal Asymptote has just raised lots of crowd-funded money and is coming good by launching a translation competition. Early-career translators will be favoured and can win $1000 for a poetry or prose translation from any language into English. Good luck!

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Thinking about Literary Blogging

I've been to two events recently that attempted to think about literary criticism and literary blogging. In one case I was on a panel myself, in Solothurn with a Swiss literary critic (print), a Swiss literary programmer (radio) and a German crime writing critic (internet). I think I was supposed to be young and fresh and represent the future of literary criticism – which was the title of the event – but I'm not sure I managed that. Certainly, we didn't really argue and I didn't feel anyone said anything particularly earth-moving. Then there was a panel discussion between literary bloggers at the Brecht-Haus here in Berlin. This was a little difficult, for several reasons. Firstly, bloggers tend to be quite keen to express their opinions, by their very nature, and although there was a little more controversy involved than on the Swiss podium, there was also a lot of microphone-hogging, which was a shame. Secondly, it was hard to find a balance for a very mixed audience of experienced bloggers and venue regulars who seemed to have come out of curiosity about what these new-fangled blog things are. And thirdly, the title was too vague so nobody knew what they were supposed to talk about. But perhaps the problem is that panel discussions are often a bit rubbish, whatever they're about, because we're looking at a bunch of strangers forced to talk to each other in front of an audience in return for a modest fee.

Perhaps what panel discussions are good for is prompting thoughts that occur afterwards, however, rather than solving the world's dilemmas on the spot. So here are the thoughts I've been having, in as yet unprocessed form.

I've been thinking about the kind of literary bloggers who review the books they like, with no particular ambitions other than sharing their opinions and possibly communicating with other fans of their special genres or writers. The kind of bloggers that literary critics turn their noses up at; and perhaps Amazon reviewers also fall into this category. What I love about this phenomenon is that it means people are reading differently. I remember I used to write about seeing live bands for a while, but then gave it up because it made gigs less fun and more of a cerebral experience. Bloggers are reading more consciously because we know we're going to write about the books later. Even something as simple as rating books on Goodreads requires us to think about the extent to which we enjoyed and admired them, rather than merely consuming books and moving on to the next one. The idea that the big, bad internet, e-books, etc., have made reading a shallower experience neglects this aspect.

Bloggers can write about our reading experiences in a subjective way, a form that isn't yet entirely accepted in traditional (German) literary criticism. I like it, I really do. In fact I now feel uncomfortable with the pretense of objectivity in many more conventional reviews. Statements along the lines of "the writer's masterly descriptions of death remind the reader of his own mortality" are exposed as arrogant lies (for me!) when bloggers can write "I loved the writer's descriptions of death; they made me think of my own mortality" or indeed, of the same theoretical book, "the descriptions of death seemed unrealistic to me, and certainly don't tie in with my experiences of losing loved ones." Or whatever. Along with the rise of the first-person narrative essay that we've seen on or via the internet – those self-revelatory pieces with their gruesome fascination – writing about books is also becoming a first-person exercise, or can be. And I personally find that very interesting to read. Aside from Richard Kämmerlings' book on "what all these great books did to me", I don't see that in traditional (German-language) media outlets.

And we can do more creative things in reaction to books, we can rewrite and riff upon and fanfic and we can tell big fat lies (something the internet makes particularly easy). We can write our own fiction and share it, and it may not be much cop but at least we can get it off our chests. We can evangelise and big ourselves up and admit to being biased and unprofessional. We can collaborate and argue and we can try out unusual formats. We can get writers drunk and write them open letters and pretend to be of another gender or from another planet and we can fight against loneliness and isolation and get to know other people who share our obscure passions. We can cast a spotlight, however low-wattage, on our niche literary interests. In fact, writing about books in translation is a case in point: it's the bloggers who do this now in the English-speaking world, and often at an extremely high level. All this is marvellous, I think.

And yet I get the feeling a lot of traditional literary critics and journalists feel threatened by literary bloggers, hence their willingness to dismiss us/them out of hand, as I mentioned above. Is there a sense that the cuts in press coverage for books, and thus the increasing difficulty of make a living as a professional critic, are directly due to book bloggers? I don't think it's nearly that simple, but there are people who've put this case better than I can. I'll readily admit there are things for which professional critics are extremely useful. It's useful that many of them write for particular newspapers or media outlets, so we have a vague idea of what their politics or aesthetic principles might be. It's useful that they can read widely and draw comparisons. And it's good that someone else trusts them to write a decent piece, other than themselves. They come with a seal of approval, if you like. They also reach a far larger readership, as a rule, and can therefore prompt wider debates.

I'd like to regard book bloggers as an equivalent to amateur dramatics companies. We can be amazing, we can be ropey, some of us may rise to the professional level, but we're not ultimately a threat to the professionals. I did a fair amount of am-dram as a child and teenager. It was hard work but great fun. The British actor Michael Simkins wrote a piece in the Guardian last year about amateur theatre, in which he expresses respect for many of his amateur colleagues (and amusingly dismisses others). The difference, he says, is that amateurs prefer not to run all the risks of earning a living from their passion. That pretty much sums it up for me.    

Update: many thanks to Fabian Thomas of the Daily Frown for pointing out a great article on the subject from the professional literary critic's perspective, namely Volker "The Hair" Weidermann in the FAZ

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Two magazines for you:

MadHat 14 is a special translation issue, with the innovatively punctuated subtitle of cut.ting edge: austrian, german and swiss writing. It features a number of my absolute favourites: Annett Gröschner, Francis Nenik, Julya Rabinowich, and a great deal more fiction, poetry and drama.

There's also a Germany issue of Litro out now, although the writing is about rather than from Germany.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Swiss Literature Prize

I mentioned that I was invited to the Solothurner Literaturtage, which was a wonderful three-day extravaganza in a friendly Swiss town. Many, many impressions and ideas came home with me - some of which I shall elaborate upon in due course.

The festival started with the awarding of the new Swiss Literature Prize though. A quick recap of the previous state of the nation: although Switzerland has four official languages - German, French, Italian and Romansh - only books written in German are eligible for the Swiss Book Prize, which was first awarded in 2008, run by the LiteraturBasel festival and the Swiss booksellers' and publishers' association (which in turn covers German- and Romansh-speaking Switzerland and Liechtenstein). Confused? There's more to come.

So now the Swiss government has launched its own literary prizes for all four languages. They're quite complex too. There are the Eidgenössische Literaturpreise (which translates as confederate literary prizes), awarded to one prose and one poetry publication in each language every year.  Or that's what I thought until I looked up the winners and found that three of the books are in German: Irina Brezna's novel Die undankbare Fremde, Thilo Krause's poetry collection Und das ist alles genug and Martin Zschokke's novel Der Mann mit zwei Augen. But anyway, there are eight of them altogether.

And then there's the Schweizer Literaturpreis, which goes to three individuals for their life's work, plus one translator and/or cultural player/organisation. Or that's what I remember them saying at the ceremony, anyway. This year's winners were the Francophone novelist Jean-Marc Lovay, Italian-speaking poet Fabio Pusterla and the German-speaking writer and artist Erica Pedretti. I know next to nothing about the other two, as they were speaking languages I don't understand, but I know that Erica Pedretti was fantastic - a natural storyteller who looked like the grandmother in Red Riding Hood but I suspect is more of a big bad wolf. The translator/cultural mediation prize went to the literary/translation festival Babel.

The ceremony itself was long and at least trilingual. I was grateful that the German-speakers stuck to High German rather than Swiss German, which remains an incomprehensible wall of sound to me. While it all seemed rather complicated, I got the feeling the prize structure reflects the Swiss literary world. And I was pleased to hear that the jury had decided to honour outstanding quality rather than "readability". A good thing all round - although apparently the press were rather confused and opted to draw a veil of silence over the whole affair.

The event itself was followed by an Apéro riche, which is Swiss for a very generous buffet with drinks. They had these really nifty clips on the side of the plates, for holding your wine glass so you had one hand free. I don't know if that tells us something about the Swiss or not. I pocketed one to take home with me. Gotta live dangerously.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Transfiction Goes Fantastic

Not that they weren't already fantastic before, but the ladies at Transfiction are being particularly impressive right this moment. First check out their blog - featuring interviews with everyone involved in Frisch & Co's first release, Anna Kim's Anatomy of A Night (trans. Bradley Schmidt).

And then you can go to an event they're hosting in Berlin, a launch party for a special translated-from-the-German issue of MadHat Annual. Which, I believe, they've co-curated. It has all the good translators and all the good writers in it. The launch is on Saturday. I can't go. I'm very upset.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Nathaniel Popkin on Authors & Translators

At The Smart Set, Nathaniel Popkin writes about the motivation behind the Authors & Translators website, a runaway success:
Good translation is thus a rather magical sleight of hand. The translator has to force herself through genius and instinct to become invisible, a dangerous proposition in a media world that rewards those, most of all, who shout and strut.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Alfred Döblin Prize to Sasa Stanisic

The Alfred Döblin Prize was founded by Günter Grass after he came into a lot of money. It's awarded every two years for an as yet unpublished manuscript by a previously published writer. A jury makes a selection of six nominees (this year from over 400 submissions) and they're invited to a day-long workshop-like reading at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin. The audience, who are encouraged to participate in the discussion, is made up of critics, editors, publishers, agents, and a small number of translators. That means the discussion takes place on a very high level, but at the same time is very supportive. Let me say at this point that I was once again very grateful to the LCB for the invitation. There are times when I get a little jaded, when I've been reading and listening to writing that just tires me out and makes me feel cynical. Yesterday's event very effectively cured me of that feeling, by presenting simply excellent German writing.

Each nominee read for about twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes' discussion. You can tell by the headline who won, but I do want to tell you a little about the other texts because all of them were impressive in their own way.

Nora Bossong read from a novel in progress with the working title of Nino war hier - dealing in part with Italy's 1920s communist leader Antonio Gramsci. I was very taken by the piece, which mixed realism with fantastic elements and used some quite elaborate language. There were some in the audience who found it too elaborate, but I found if you're going to have ghosts of obscure communists wandering graveyards and insane, impoverished Italian landladies, you can afford to put a little more colour into the writing itself too. I look forward to the finished product.

Heinz Helle read from a post-apocalyptic manuscript called, I believe, Brixen. It came as a shock after Bossong's text but it would have done under any circumstances. In a good way. His language pared back to the bones, Helle described a group of young men roaming the land after something - a fire? - had wiped most people out. Brutal stuff, brutally done, with flashbacks intimating what had happened. My question, which others in the audience voiced, was what propelled the story. There was a suggestion that it might evolve into an And Then There Were None-type serial bumping-off scenario. Excellent but no doubt harrowing reading.

Svenja Leiber's working title is Porträt mit Knochenarm. This seemed to be one of the most developed manuscripts, as Leiber had quite set ideas about the novel's scope. To wit, it's a novel about music with a protagonist who becomes a violinist. She read from the beginning, set in a north German village in 1911. Again, the language was thrilling. My issue with it, however, was something Leiber touched on herself – the risk that it might become too bucolic. Interestingly, I think many of us now view German rural life at that time through a White Ribbon lens, and were expecting brutality. It was there, but then so was humour and affection. Although the author said the text's musicality decreases throughout the novel (which sounds like a shame), its subject matter – 20th-C German history channelled through a single family – is something that could make it a major success, if cleverly marketed. I know many British readers would be very into the idea.

Winner Sasa Stanisic presented an extract from a book called Anna, probably. English-speaking readers may be familiar with his novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, trans. Anthea Bell. Or you should be, at least. Again, Stanisic has put together stories upon stories, this time based around a village in the Uckermark in the former East Germany. There are local myths, fictionalised historical anecdotes, modern-day miniatures, all melding into one another. And humour, verging on silliness but sometimes drifting into scary. As I listened, the playful language made me translate it in my head, and I envied Anthea Bell the joy of one day putting it into English. This is going to be a very good book indeed.

Thomas von Steinaecker read from another post-apocalypse scenario, entitled 2045, this time more complex. It's planned in the form of four exercise books written by a young narrator who can't remember what the world was like before the disaster - although not actually separated into four short physical books in a slipcase, which I personally think would be a fun thing to do. And as he starts to understand the world better, his style apparently changes from the hard-going mix of faux-high register and deliberately disturbing anglicisms we heard yesterday. I think perhaps it was this style that raised a few hackles in the audience, and also perhaps the fact that post-apocalyptic writing isn't as established in German literature as it is elsewhere. Certainly, Steinaecker touched on some fascinating ideas and psychologies here, using his blank-canvas setting to explore human nature. An ambitious project, which I look forward to reading more of.

After hours of texts, Gabriele Weingartner had a harder time with her apparently autobiographical manuscript, Einübung in Ironie. It was a story of a woman looking back on her marriage, a relationship with her significantly older literature professor that seemed rather out of time for the heady late-60s West Berlin setting, no doubt a deliberate contrast. The jury vehemently defended the conventional style as perfectly suited to the material, and praised the wealth of literary references. Perhaps the irony was lost on the audience out of sheer exhaustion.

Sadly, the prize's founder and funder Grass was unwell and couldn't attend. He missed an inspiring day by the lake, and excellent soup. Stanisic gets €10,000 and the honour of being added to an impressive roll call of previous winners. Not that he'd ever use such a hackneyed phrase. He seemed very happy.

Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize Nominations

Hooray! Two translators from German are nominated for the venerable Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Here's the full list:

Tess Lewis for Lukas Bärfuss, One Hundred Days (translated from German)
Louise B. Popkin for Mario Benedetti, Witness (translated from Spanish)
Sam Taylor for Laurent Binet, HHhH (French)
Frank Wynne for Alonso Cueto, The Blue Hour (Spanish)
Philip Boehm for Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel (German)
Mike Mitchell for Jean-Pierre Ohl, The Lairds of Cromarty (French)

How very exciting. The prize honours an outstanding translation from a European language. I'm pleased to see that they had more submissions than ever. The winner – announced in early June – gets £2000.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Dan Brown's Translators in Berlusconi's Bunker

I've written about Dan Brown's German translators and the conditions they work under before. And now the German trade publication Buchreport has written about the latest installment, which is even more bizarre than the last ones. Eleven translators into various languages, all spending weeks working in a windowless basement room beneath the Mondadori publishing house in Milan. They weren't allowed to take mobile phones in there, had to access the internet under surveillance via one computer, and worked until at least 8 pm every single day of the week. Although they were allowed to use the staff canteen, they had fake alibis in case anyone asked them what they were doing there.

The Italian listings magazine TV Sorrisi e Canzoni - also published by Mondadori - ran a gleeful piece on the security measures and interviews with the translators of Inferno. Note the guard's gun in the first of these links. Most of the translators are surprisingly positive about spending two months deprived of daylight and contact to their loved ones - Stockholm syndrome, perhaps? It was interesting, they say, to work with other people rather than alone at home. All of them admit it was very tiring though. I hope they were paid very well indeed.  

The book comes out simultaneously in English, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Italian and Portuguese on 14 May. The foreign publishers seem to feel it's a good idea to make their translators work under these backbreaking conditions so that they don't lose revenue to the English original by bringing the translations out later - and because they obviously don't trust them not to pirate the content. Lord knows Dan Brown can hardly afford to let anyone know plot details beforehand; in 2011 he was apparently worth $400m.

God, it makes me so angry. And Mondadori publishing the details in their own magazine makes it all seem like part of a rather sick publicity stunt.