Thursday, 30 January 2014

Eye-Feasting Season

Fans of German books! Tonight's the night you get to feast your eyes on beautiful, intelligent people! Start with my lovely friend Tess Lewis, who is curating this year's Festival Neue Literatur in New York and stars in her own video. And she's very cleverly picked only attractive people to present their writing - from Austria, Switzerland and Germany and from the USA - at the festival: Milena Michiko Flašar (Austria), Olga Grjasnowa (Germany), Maja Haderlap (Austria), Abbas Khider (Germany), Melinda Nadj Abonji (Switzerland), and Richard Weihe (Switzerland) plus U.S. authors Monique Truong and Keith Gessen. Go along! Drool!

If you're not actually in New York in February, there's still hope for you. The Chemnitz bookshop Lessing und Kompanie has the world's most beautiful Tumblr. According to the trade mag Börsenblatt they invested a big fat €3500 in an all-day session with a professional photographer taking shots of 127 of their customers in the shop, with their favourite books. My friends and I have been perving over the pictures for a week or so now. This is how internet dating should actually work. Actually attractive photos, no stupid self-descriptions, and don't you think you can tell so much about someone by their favourite book? Whether it's been read hundreds of times over, how they hold it, what kind of book it is... One friend likes the Döblin fan, I prefer the Joycean, another loves the idea of a man whose favourite book is about Italian food. Honestly, I could look at it for hours. I probably will.

Not quite as telefantastic but still amusing is a new German ad campaign for, erm, reading. Various TV personalities you may not have heard of make some interesting statements about what reading can do for you. Not to be taken too literally, I suspect, especially the claim that "reading makes you fit". No, it really doesn't. I do like "reading makes you bright" though, and not only because I used to have a bit of a crush on Steffen Hallaschka when he was on 100 Grad. It was the nineties. We all looked like that.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Michelle Woods: Kafka Translated

Franz Kafka is the most commonly listed writer in a study of online dating profiles, followed by Milan Kundera and Paolo Coelho. Kafka has his own adjective and, as Michelle Woods points out in her fascinating Kafka Translated, has even made it into The Wire. You can't get much bigger. And yet Kafka made it big in English via a series of translators. Woods sets out to make those translators a little more visible, and to explore other aspects of translation in and of the writer's work. Her book's tagline is How Translators have Shaped our Reading of Kafka.

She begins with his first translator, into Czech in this case, Milena Jesenská. Many readers know of her through the collection of Kafka's Letters to Milena. I read these letters once, only once, and then tucked them away safely on the shelf because I knew I ought never to read them again. Love letters between a writer and his translator. They can't be un-read and it's an idea a translator would probably do better not to have in her head. Too late. Jesenská's side of the correspondence has been lost, and she remains so invisible to this day that she rarely warrants a surname. Woods tells us how she has been dismissed as a "bad translator" by all sorts of people who don't read Czech, and romanticized by novelists. Her story as Kafka's lover and a victim of the Nazis is inviting but is rarely told with her as an active protagonist. Being a reader of Czech, Woods goes some way to redeeming Jesenská's translations and certainly lends her a voice of her own, as a journalist and translator. She also gives us some fascinating information on the literary climate in which Kafka's Czech translations were first published - a new nation interested in writing experiments and new styles, with much scope for non-domesticating translation.

The next maligned woman in the plot is Willa Muir. Like Jesenská, Muir led a ground-breaking life of her own accord, growing up in poverty in the Shetlands, being one of the first women to attend a British university, moving to Europe and then London and attempting to make a feminist idea of marriage work. What Woods does in her book is provide convincing evidence that Kafka's first translations into English were not done by Edwin Muir and his wife, but by Willa Muir with occasional assistance from her husband. The Muir translations have been subject to a lot of criticism (there's a pattern arising here) for their smoothing-out and domesticating, along with other petty things like their use of allegedly Scottish words. Woods is not naive; she admits that much of this criticism is legitimate – although some of the blame can be placed on Max Brod for his posthumous sanitizing of Kafka through the editing process. What she does here, however, is show that Willa Muir was probably perfectly aware of what she was doing and chose to domesticate because that was what publishers at the time wanted. Sometimes, I'm afraid, they still do. Based on Muir's diaries and an unpublished, thinly disguised autobiographical novel, Woods unearths a fiercely intelligent woman who was translating to feed her family and hated some of the work – notably Feuchtwanger – but loved some of it too, even though it kept her from her own writing. Also, she was very funny indeed.

Woods moves on to living translators, starting with the Irish-born Mark Harman, who pressed Schocken to publish his re-translations of Das Schloß and Amerika because of the drawbacks to the Muir versions. In this section, she focuses partly on the way a translator's own language and reading colour their work. Harman is a Kafka scholar and a great fan of Samuel Beckett, who apparently found Kafka difficult and said that he wrote "like a steamroller". Here, Woods traces the tiny impressions left in Harman's Kafka by Beckett, and looks at the issue of "mid-Atlantic English", something I'm not sure exists. Certainly, it's not a language I can produce, but Harman seems to think he can, having lived in the States for many years. It's in this part that Woods introduces us to an indirect argument between two writer-critics, Milan Kundera and J.M. Coetzee. Both of them have grumpily critiqued Kafka translations, something many writers seem to enjoy doing, as Woods reveals by the by. Coetzee is the baddy, arguing in the case of Harman's The Castle that the translator ought to have tidied things up more towards the end, been less stylistically faithful. When it comes to Michael Hofmann, however, Coetzee finds his Joseph Roth translations not faithful enough. Kundera meanwhile argues that it's important for translators to render not into conventional good French, or English, but to show the author's transgressions against accepted style. To his credit, while this may seem utterly obvious, he did write it in 1996.

The section on Michael Hofmann was the most exciting reading, for me. I have had a problem with Michael Hofmann for a while, presumably founded on envy pure and simple. It's a little late in this review to admit it, but I've only ever read two translations of Kafka, and those were two versions of Ein Landarzt by Michael Hofmann and by Joyce Crick, both built into Will Self's magnificent digital essay "Kafka's Wound". I absolutely adore Hofmann's version. It is playful and stylish and it embellishes very slightly to make up for anything that may have been lost along the way. Whereas Crick's is the translation students ought to read, because it's more accurate and sober. I loved Hofmann's voice as Irmgard Keun in Child of All Nations, and in general I am all too willing to admit that Michael Hofmann is an outstanding translator. I suppose the non-envy part of the problem must be that I don't share his literary taste, with a few exceptions. Michelle Woods contests that his taste is what makes him stand out as a translator, and I found that very interesting. Because he has in fact translated a large swathe of mid-twentieth-century German-speaking men whose work doesn't grab me in the slightest. Which has the major advantage of leaving contemporary writers for the rest of us. I do think there is a kind of translator typecasting at play to some extent, whereby certain translators end up doing historical fiction, some will do classics, one will do racy contemporary novels by young writers, and so on. The subject was discussed by readers at Vishy's Blog last November, and it was interesting to think about how much choice translators have in the matter. Hofmann, at least, speaks of his own "imprimatur" and his wish that people will see his name on a book cover and buy a translation on the strength of that. I think in a small way that already happens.

Woods conducted an interview with Hofmann, which helps matters further by making him seem less pompous than in some of his critical writing. I was most relieved, after about a hundred pages of translation comparisons highlighting euphony and metre and the use of plosives, to find that Hofmann is often motivated by impatience and that he tackles his translations instinctively. Those daring translatorial choices of his that I so much admire are not the result of hours of weighing up and syllable-counting but spur-of-the-moment decisions. So despite being closer to Willa Muir in terms of financial constraints on my work, I now feel I can genuinely aspire to translate as playfully as Hofmann, when the occasion allows. Where he details his working philosophy in the interview, I find myself nodding:
Everything I do is on a case-by-case basis. The degree to which a book is left in German or all goes into English – I call it the schapps or wurst (or brandy or sausage) question. Whereabouts on the Anglo-American continuum it goes.
And elsewhere, he wrote something I find equally inspiring and close to my own emerging understanding of translation as a utopian project. Woods quotes him as describing translation as "a mode of reading so sympathetic and transitive that the outcome is a wholly new work, it's hunch and nerve and (my own muse) impatience. It's approaching the avowed-impossible, and shrugging your shoulders and just getting on with it." Yes.

There is much more in Kafka Translated but the second half focuses on Kafka's reception, which is of less specific interest here – although well worth reading. For me, the first half is an inspiring read for all those interested in translation. Woods is inherently sympathetic to the translator as a creative individual and has done us all a good turn by shining a light on four of the people who have indeed shaped our reading. She argues that what critics often launch upon as "mistakes" are almost always conscious decisions and should be respected as such. I devoured the book in one day and would wholly recommend it to general readers as well as translators, if only it weren't so expensive. for those interested in exploring translation decisions for themselves, Susan Bernofsky's exciting-looking new The Metamorphosis is more affordable.

Friday, 24 January 2014

German Crime Prize to Friedrich Ani

The Germans love crime fiction. Probably every culture loves crime fiction, but the Germans love home-grown crime fiction with a passion. There's something about reading a crime novel where the mutilated corpse is found in your local park and the detectives drink strong black coffee on your local station forecourt that makes you happy. There are market stalls and poky little shops that do a roaring trade in used crime paperbacks. There's the TV crime show Tatort, which has been running since 1970 with the same opening theme, which is not unlike Doctor Who in its nation-building ubiquity and which features police detectives in all sorts of German, Austrian and Swiss regions. People meet up to watch it in bars on Sunday nights, and canteens across the country resound with conversation on Monday lunchtime over whether it was a good one or not.

Of course there are several prizes for crime fiction, reflecting just how important it is to the nation's psyche. The longest-running award is the Deutscher Krimi Preis, and this year it has gone to Friedrich Ani for his novel M. Ani is a big name; I can't count the number of times he's been recommended to me. I just looked him up and found he's won an astounding twenty-one prizes for his work. He sets his crime novels in Munich; M features the popular missing-persons private detective Tabor Süden. Not unlike a certain other famous detective, Süden retired for a while but was brought back by popular demand – now in his nineteenth book. Ani also writes young adult novels, poetry and screenplays, including for the Tatort series. A few of the Tabor Süden books have been adapted for the screen too.

So the most amazing thing about this prolific and talented author is that his books have apparently been translated into French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Korean, Chinese and Polish – but not English. Publishers! What's the matter with you? M is set in a city Brits and Americans have heard of, has won a big fat prize, and features neo-Nazis. What else do you need? Good grief.

I'm hoping that someone somewhere is actually translating all these books as we speak, and will publish them all at once to surprise us. Wouldn't that be nice?

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Old New German Translation Award

Remember the German Embassy Translation Award? Well, it's back, only now it's the Goethe-Institut Award for New Translation. Enter, translate a text by Stephan Thome, win a month in Berlin and €1000. Deadline is 10 February.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Actually, Some Thoughts on Biographies and Creative Writing Graduates

I keep starting this piece and then deleting it again. Because it's blindingly obvious, but I'm going to say it anyway. It follows on from the beginning of the last post. And the German article that refers to is now online here.

We don't want writers to be bland people. We want Bukowski and Kerouac, we want addicts and victims of tragic deaths and people who claw their way up from the gutter. We want JK Rowling writing in cafés while her kids are at school. We want rock stars like Patti Smith and spies like John Le Carré. We want Annemarie Schwarzenbach with her permissive aristocratic background and her opium habit, we want Kafka with all his failed engagements and his consumption, we want Hilbig drinking himself to death, we want Walser with that last insane walk in the snow, we want Irmgard Keun going off with that crazy drunk Joseph Roth and then forgotten for years, we want Fallada drinking himself to death, we even still want Grass with his self-denial and his eight kids with four different mothers. We want a narrative of desperation, we want to kid ourselves that writers lead more exciting lives than we do so that not only their books but also the imaginary backdrop to them are part of a cathartic experience for us. Suffer, will you, so I don't have to.

And then they go and get a degree in creative writing and they come from stable family backgrounds because who else would study something as unpromising and whimsical as that. And they do, they really do lead perfectly normal, conventional lives, and the men get married to younger women they met at university and wait a sensible period before having children and buy homes in up-and-coming areas and they probably even have cleaning ladies for all I know. It's a terrible disappointment, I know, and I wish they wouldn't do it. I'm not even being sarcastic. It makes my life look so messy in comparison, even though on a scale from one to Irmgard Keun, my life is at the tidy end.

But they do it, and that means all the writers who don't fit into that dull mould get the more interesting details of their lives splashing over into reviews – exile, prison, exotic past jobs (for exotic read: jobs that journalists would never consider doing). I'm hoping, however, that even the sons and daughters of doctors and teachers will become more interesting as they get older; maybe get divorced from the younger women with the stable jobs, maybe pick up an addiction to gambling or ritalin, maybe start painting or playing music on the side or go in for polygamy or some of those other mid-life distractions. And perhaps, just perhaps, some of them are already doing some of these things, only very discreetly, and it has no influence whatsoever on whether their writing is good or not.

Monday, 20 January 2014

On Demographics and German Writers

Two newspaper articles have caused a storm in the German literary teacup over the past few days: one about the family backgrounds of creative writing graduates, and one about having kids and trying to write.

In Die Zeit (now online), creative writing graduate Florian Kessler, the son of a teacher and a neurology professor, wrote a longish piece about how creative writing graduates are almost all sons and daughters of middle-class professionals. Cue mild outrage over one middle-class kid outing other middle-class kids (or getting it wrong). For me, it's a bit of a no-brainer: if you're the first person in your family to go to university, you're more likely to study something that will help you earn a decent living later on. Creative writing? Not so much. Luckily, the German-speaking world only has four creative writing schools at university level (two in Germany, one each in Switzerland and Austria). So all those working-class poets, essayists and novelists can still make it big.

Something I found more interesting, although perhaps a little derivative of an American discussion a while back, was an article by the novelist and mother-of-two Julia Franck in Die Welt. Her theory: writing and children are incompatible. This seems a tiny bit odd because she seems to manage it anyway. But she argues that having children makes it impossible for her to devote as much time and attention to her writing as she would like (i.e. all of it) - and also that having children means writers can't travel and promote their books as much as is expected of them.
Looking at the world of the literary business and our state and financial system, the combination of writing and parenting appears an alien concept. Germany is one of the countries with the most numerous literary grants, and writers even receive invitations to events and writer-in-residence programmes from abroad. None of these makes practical sense for us, because a person with children is not a dis-social entity – and every prerequisite for our writing depends more on childcare than on Roman olive trees or the Californian coast.
How many invitations to readings and festivals, lectures and book fairs around the world have I had to turn down over the past decade, what attention and income have I had to forgo? (...)
And what does the mother-writer travelling in such a temporal corset "bring back" from these trips? Rio, Stockholm, Saint Petersburg – and every evening your own voice in your ears, the illustrious event "Julia Franck reads – and speaks" – to the point of tedium if not self-disgust, afterwards a small dark cramped room, in between a series of people asking questions, people you'll never see again – and in hardly a hotel room in the world or airport or station waiting room a desk, quiet, concentration, and everywhere you miss the children terribly and feel all the more restless and insecure and vain and in the end absolutely overloaded by the conversion to profit of this love and disease so intimate, that of writing.
Up until the latter paragraph above, I did not get Franck's article one little bit. You have kids, you get childcare, you work when they're not around, like everyone else. I understand that people feel a special drive to write and that writing is an activity that sucks people in and makes them obsessive. One of the reasons I understand that is that translation is similar for me, sometimes. Like Franck, I can go into a mental tunnel and lose track of everything around me while I'm working. Children, I have found, are a good way to stop a person doing that all the time, and that's a good thing in my book because spending all your time in another world is not very healthy. I don't like to tell people how to live their lives but hey, it's OK that children need to eat because that reminds their parents to eat as well.

But then came that paragraph, and it shocked me because I've felt exactly the same way. I enjoy getting away from family routine for a short time, but after a few days it becomes hollow and empty and sad and heartbreakingly lonely, because I start missing my daughter. And people who don't have kids don't seem to understand that. For a while, I've been apologising for "not liking travelling". I turn things down or don't apply for things or just avoid the subject of working anywhere other than Berlin. Too complicated. I sometimes think it's very gauche of me not to like travelling. What I don't like though, it turns out, is missing my daughter. I shall stop apologising.

So yes, in a sense children are incompatible with pursuing an all-encompassing creative passion to the full. I'm finding it hard to write about this without sounding moralistic and preachy. The best I can do is this: children bring parents a lot of rewards and if you want to have them, they're a wonderful thing. They earth you, but that means they tie you down. They make you attached to something other than yourself. For me, that's a good thing, but I can see it might be difficult if writing is the only thing you want to do in life. I'm grateful to Julia Franck for writing about the problem so eloquently without denying the terrifying love on both sides of the equation.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The German Essay

I know very little about the German essay. However, I attended an event last week on "The State of the Essay", from which I gleaned a little knowledge. It was organized by Merkur magazine and the Freie Universität's literature faculty, which is running a course on the essay this semester, and I attended mainly because they invited my friend Amanda DeMarco to speak on the subject. It was a panel discussion, so obviously no conclusion was reached.

I discovered a few things nonetheless. Firstly, nobody knows what an essay is. Wahrig defines "Essay (m. 6 od. n. 15; Lit.)" as "literar. Kunstform, Abhandlung in knapper, geistvoller, allgemein verständlicher Form". Note that it's such a vague thing you can say either "das Essay" or "der Essay". Webster's goes into more detail: "2a: an analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usu. much shorter and less systematic and less formal than a dissertation or thesis and usu. dealing with its subject from a limited often personal point of view". German also has the term Aufsatz, which I understand as being less impressive, more the school essay type of thing; perhaps the kind of writing that might take the cheap approach of starting with dictionary definitions. There was discussion on the panel of where to draw the line between journalism and the essay. I would like to suggest that if a writer calls something an essay, we can safely assume it is one.

Then there is a distinction between the academic and the literary essay. Merkur publishes the former type, mainly, but with Michael Rutschky on the panel they had somewhat of a shining example of the literary essayist. There was also Georg Stanitzek, who I believe has studied the German essay from an academic perspective, and offered a historical definition along the lines of "something two gentlemen might discuss while out walking". Merkur doesn't in fact have a terribly good track record on publishing women's writing, although I'm assured they're working on it; you can read some of their ideas on why women don't submit to them in Eurozine. Stanitzek took this gender imbalance as an indication that women still don't write essays. In the audience, the editors of the literary magazine Edit proved that this was poppycock by telling us that fifty percent of entries for their annual essay competition come from women.

The panel itself was admirably balanced, with Kathrin Passig to tell us that the internet doesn't offer the kind of prestige that print publications do in Germany, which is why we're not seeing many essays published online here. The essay, she and Rutschky agreed, is not something one writes for money but for recognition. And that recognition comes less from the genre of the essay, which is apparently slightly frowned upon, at least among academics, than from the subject matter – as the genre is profane, Rutschky claimed, it must be made respectable by writing about a sacred matter, such as literature or art. Another thing I found interesting was the general feeling that it's becoming more acceptable to write journalism and essays in the first person here. This has always been something I've noticed about German journalism – writers will tie themselves up in knots to avoid using the word "ich", whereas the first person is a perfectly viable perspective in English. I'm glad things are changing.

Amanda pointed out that German essays are a little more intellectual than American ones, and I'm glad to say I don't see any evidence of the "confessional essay" (my former life as a prostitute, how my boss harrassed me and I put up with it, etc.) over here. I hate to generalize about national cultures but perhaps we can say that the Germans tend to be somewhere between discreet and uptight about private matters. That can go either way but in terms of the essay, it saves us the dreadful fascination of reading young women's emotional crises splashed all over the internet. Another difference posited was that American creative writing schools are training writers as essayists, whereas Germany only has two creative writing schools in the first place.

Where to start reading the German essay? If you read German, try for a large collection of what they label "literary journalism". Edit has just published its award-winning literary essays for this year, which are very unconventional and worth buying. And you can search the Merkur archive for predominantly academic essays, some of which are available for free. Some of the major literary houses also still publish literary magazines, including Neue Rundschau from Fischer and Akzente from Hanser, and the LCB does the excellent Sprache im technischen Zeitalter.

I have three suggestions for German literary essays available in English. Starting way back when, you can read a personal essay by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt in the new issue of Asymptote journal, translated by Isabel Cole. From the mid-nineties, Austrian Christoph Ransmayr's piece "The Gravedigger of Hallstadt" is what I'd call a first-class essay and is available in Seiriol Dafydd's translation at no man's land. Finally, there's an award-winning essay from the first Edit competition, in my translation, German writer Francis Nenik's The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping.  

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Making of... The King of China

So I have a new book out (she says casually): The King of China by Tilman Rammstedt. We had a fabulous event to launch it, if I do say so myself, attended by very nearly fifty people. I certainly enjoyed it and I think some of the others did too.

As I've written before, I intend to write a little making-of piece here in lieu of a translator's note whenever a book I've translated comes out. It seems like a useful thing to make available on the internet. Please feel free to crib from it if you're writing a review. So here we go.

Tilman and I first met officially when we were both involved in a panel discussion in Berlin. It wasn't a very good panel discussion. It was about why so few German books get translated into English, and was one of those chest-beating occasions on which Germans blame the complexity of their literature for the fact that British and American publishers don't translate it. Whereby they are both a) misjudging the Anglophone market, as in fact German is the second-most translated language for novels, it's just that there's not much translation as a whole, and b) actually showing off about the complexity of their literature. Sadly, I was too nervous to say this in public at the time. What Tilman said on that panel, however, was that he didn't really want to be translated all that badly, didn't really care either way. When I mentioned this at our launch event on Saturday he commented that it sounded a terribly immature thing to say; but it was about four years ago, and it was one of the more interesting comments made on that panel. In any case, I read Der Kaiser von China in preparation for that panel and enjoyed it very much indeed.

What happened next was down to the foreign rights person at Tilman's publishing house DuMont, Judith Habermas. Like many of the people whose job is selling translation rights, Judith is a bit of a whirlwind, in the most charming way. Judith talked to the publisher I work with a lot, Seagull Books, and recommended Der Kaiser von China. Seagull liked the look of it and asked me about it and I was very enthusiastic about the idea, and the deal was practically done.

And so I sat down to translate the novel. There were two main challenges: the very special rhythm throughout the book and the travel-guide tone in the letters the protagonist Keith writes to his family, pretending to be in China. The latter was easily overcome because Tilman had used the Lonely Planet guide to China as a source, and simply lent me his English copy. At the beginning of the novel there are a couple of short phrases lifted verbatim, which I found with little difficulty and transcribed into my own version. As the plot moves on the letters become increasingly fictional, with more and more bizarre imaginary details, but having worked with the guidebook to begin with, I had found the tone by that point. Recreating the rhythm was a question of listening carefully to the original sentences, trying not to chop too many of them down to size, and being brave enough to allow my English versions to run on and on until they reached their sometimes punchline-like climax or anti-climax. Tilman disapproves of the word punchline in this context, I believe, but I think it fits if you don't take it too literally.

The last issue was the title. If you pay attention to such things you'll have noticed it's not a literal translation. The German Kaiser is of course an emperor, and of course that's what they had in China, not kings. There were several reasons why the title was changed, in the end. Firstly, it refers to a bit of wordplay that crops up in the plot, which I tried to rescue in English by tweaking it slightly. Having found a solution I could live with, it seemed to work rather well as a title because it reflected the main character's slapdash attitude to facts and also the book's all-round kookiness. And the other excuse I found was when talking to an American book rep, my friend George Carroll. He said it would be excellent to have a title that wasn't already taken, so that when people looked up the book they would find it immediately. And The King of China wasn't already taken. I told Tilman we'd changed the title when we were both a bit tired and emotional towards the end of the launch of his most recent novel, Die Abenteuer meines ehemaligen Bankberaters. He nodded and seemed untroubled by the idea.

I hope you enjoy the book.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Drinking with... Thomas Meinecke

Last week I went out drinking with the unconventional German writer Thomas Meinecke, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Read about it here.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Isabel Cole on Surveillance

Regular readers will know that the writer and translator Isabel Cole is a long-standing partner in crime for me. We co-edit no man's land and co-host the no man's land literary translation lab, and we are often seen in cahoots over various other undertakings. She's been a great inspiration to me over the many years I've known her now.

So it's with a decent amount of pride and of course prejudice that I'd like to call your attention to two things Isabel has done recently. The first takes its starting point with a report in Words Without Borders on the genesis and progress of the writers' anti-surveillance appeal A Stand for Democracy in the Digital Age. It's heartening to see so many writers and readers coming together behind an important issue, and I know Isabel and the other initiators have put in months and months of hard work towards it. Please read her article and sign the petition, if you haven't done so already.

The second thing ties in so well with the first that I can't let it go unmentioned. Isabel also has an ebook out with Mikrotext, Ungesichertes Gelände. It's an epistolary love novella set amongst political activists, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Informed – almost inevitably because she is his translator – by the work of East German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, it is dark and wintry and heart-wrenching and quite the most intelligent and simultaneously beautiful and radical thing I've read in a long time. Isabel writes very precisely in German, not fulfilling that almost Orientalist cliché about exophonic writers adding "spice and sparkle" to their host language.

I can't write a proper review because I'm too biased, but the novella costs less than three euros so you can judge for yourself at the drop of a hat. Please do.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The International Jo Lendle Appreciation Society

A number of my female friends and I have founded an International Jo Lendle Appreciation Society. We meet up to discuss writer and publisher extraordinaire Jo Lendle, including his wit and humour, his intelligent charm and politeness, his attractive physique and his all-round cuteness. It is a little-known fact that writer and publisher extraordinaire Jo Lendle was once voted second-most attractive editor in the German publishing world. We are thinking of campaigning for a recount. We also exchange devotional items such as locks of hair, napkins used by writer and publisher Jo Lendle, and signed notes.

Although our organization has hitherto been of a strictly underground nature, the newspapers appear to have got wind of it. The FAZ has kindly provided us with a four-page interview, in which writer and publisher extraordinaire Jo Lendle says, among many other wise things, that he will publish more books by women in his new post as head of Hanser Verlag. Also, he likes to read blogs and thinks they should be taken more seriously. Next time, FAZ, we want more photos.

I think we can all agree that Hanser have made an excellent choice. Now all they need to do is relocate to one of the cities represented in the International Jo Lendle Appreciation Society, and at least one of our members will be very happy indeed. The others will try very hard not to scratch her eyes out.

Update: Jo Lendle did that thing at Fünfbü where you have to name your five favourite books. And would you look at that: they're all by women. If the list was part of an online dating profile, the International Jo Lendle Appreciation Society would snap him up straight away.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Reading Boosts Your Brain? No Thanks.

People keep drawing my attention to the idea that books are in some way good for you. The latest is this Independent piece on how reading books "may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory." The suggestion being that reading fiction can "transport you into the body of the protagonist."

Two things, briefly: Firstly, if that's what happens when you merely read a novel, imagine what happens when you translate it. Translators spend several months inside the bodies of their protagonists – and pity the poor authors, who may spend years trapped in there. Maybe this explains why I like translating sex scenes so much, but also why translating books with profoundly gloomy protagonists may be less fun than chick-lit, for instance. We're suffering for our art.

And secondly but more importantly: Can we not just read novels because we enjoy it? Can we not do it without becoming better, more intelligent, more empathetic people? Must I always be giving my brain some kind of a workout? Can literature please be about pleasure rather than self-improvement in specific terms?

I may come back to these thoughts.


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Lilo, Nelly und ich

Last year I translated Christa Wolf's final short story, "August". During and after the translation process, I wrote about it in English, and then I offered the piece to the German magazine Merkur and they took it. My friend Ina Pfitzner translated it into German, and now you can read it in the print edition or in fact download my essay for free. I hope it'll be somewhere in English at some point. The book comes out in February.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Our Survey* Says: Men Will Not Admit to Reading Books by Women

So there's this, erm, dating website, which, you know, a friend of mine signed up to. And you set up a profile - I mean, my friend set up a profile - and you can include all kinds of stuff but one of the things is what books, films, music, etc. you like. And what kind of food, which I find a bit odd but maybe it's to prevent cucumber-haters falling for cucumber-lovers, because nobody wants that, do they?

Anyway, I have been thinking about the whole men-not-reading-women thing and the women-not-getting-reviewed thing (which I suspect are related phenomena), especially in the light of Matt Jakubowski's resolution to only read books by women. A cursory Monday-evening web search has not turned up any reliable statistics on the extent to which men don't read women, but I do rather like this piece on the W&N blog looking at what the reasons might be.

So while I my friend was browsing the catalogue of single, straight men in Berlin aged between 35 and 45, I my friend was focusing quite closely on what books the men listed in their profiles. For obvious reasons but also with an eye on the gender of the writers. Now I have no idea how many of the damn things I she went through but one thing became clear very, very quickly: single, straight men in Berlin aged between 35 and 45 are damn well not going to admit to reading books by women.

Here are the women writers listed by the study sample:
Sylvia Plath
Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Toni Morrison
Virginia Woolf
Angela Carter 
Ursula LeGuin (twice)
JK Rowling (twice, although the subjects actually referred to her character, but let's try not to judge)

Here are the male writers listed by the study sample:
Graham Greene 
TC Boyle
Stanislav Lem
Thomas Bernhard
Max Frisch
Philip Roth
Sven Regener
Javier Marias
Henrik Ibsen
Walter Benjamin
JD Salinger
Marcel Proust
Stefan Zweig
George Orwell
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Theodor Adorno
Jack Kerouac
Mikhail Bulgakov
Rainald Goetz
Neil Gaiman
David Foster Wallace
Chuck Palahniuk
Michel Houellebecq
Raymond Carver
Oscar Wilde
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Albert Camus
Anton Chekhov
Charles Bukowski (twice)
Hermann Hesse (twice)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (twice)
Miguel de Cervantes (twice)
Haruki Murakami (twice)
Milan Kundera (twice)
Paulo Coelho (twice)
Franz Kafka (three mentions)

Now listen, I'm aware that people don't tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth on online dating profiles. And you wouldn't want to put down some totally obscure writer because  nobody likes a clever dick. And maybe non-single men or men in other cities and other age groups or with other sexualities are all digging into Jane Austen and Judith Butler like crazy. But isn't it fascinating? Only nine out of shitloads of men admit to reading books by women!

I hope the study sample doesn't read this en masse and get upset. I mean, guys, read whatever you like, even Coelho. The solution, it seems to me, is for the women of Berlin to bombard their (straight, single) male friends and acquaintances (in Berlin, between 35 and 45) with books written by women, so that a) they read them in the first place and b) they get a tacit message that women find books by women sexy. Thank you. 

*Not strictly scientific

Update: my friend has left the dating site. She found it troubling to "rate" people out of five, especially based on a very limited self-description that tended to make everyone, herself no doubt included, seem either utterly banal and uninteresting or borderline psychiatric cases. Plus the men she liked didn't like her back, and the algorithm suggested she ought to make contact with someone who listed Atlas Shrugged as his favourite book. And don't say 'At least it's by a woman'.