Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Very Busy

I have been very busy, translating and parenting as usual but also judging the International Dublin Literary Award. That means reading 147 novels published in English during 2015, translations and original English writing nominated by libraries all over the world. I bought a special armchair for the purpose. It has been thrilling, enlightening and fascinating but time-consuming and of course I haven't been able to read many German books.

The two I've squeezed in and liked very much are Olga Grjasnowa's forthcoming Gott ist nicht schüchtern and Fatma Aydemir's Ellbogen, both novels.

I'll also try and update my statistics on newly published original German fiction by gender to cover this spring. I'd hoped that someone else might start working on stats in German publishing but nobody seems to have gone for it so far.

And I just read Ekkehard Knörer's rather delightful nostalgic sigh of an essay about early German blogs. In that spirit, a personal revelation of sorts: I've been thinking quite hard about book reviewing, about whether I could do my bit to tip the scales in terms of women writing criticism and reviews in German publications. Two hurdles, though: it takes me a long time to write in German and I have no wish to pretend to be an all-knowing general authority without a personality. I wrote a slightly po-faced personal "manifesto" about how I would like to write reviews for German publications; maybe I'll put that here too.

Still thinking.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Fantasy Publishing House

Seeking solace, I have been daydreaming about my ideal job. So here it is: I'd like to be the person who commissions translations in a fantasy publishing house where money is no object. Obviously I'd only do that half the time; the rest of my time would still be spent translating fabulous books from German. And travelling around in my chauffeur-driven Sunbeam Alpine (see above). Well-paid staff would do the other, more gruelling parts of the publishing work: accounting, editing, production, publicity, distribution...

My translator friends would come to me with impeccable recommendations for books to publish, and I would say yes, of course, if you love the book then it must be wonderful. Let's do it. And critics will snatch them out of our hands and fight over who gets to review them. But there'd be no need to argue because it's fine to have several reviews of any particular book, even in one publication, each pointing out in a supportive manner what delightful aspects the previous reviewer couldn't find room to mention. Although probably column inches wouldn't be an issue in the first place.

My first list, on the German side of things, would consist of the following titles:

Heike Geißler: Saisonarbeit/Season's Greetings from Fulfillment
Carolin Emcke: Gegen den Hass/Against Hate

Julya Rabinowich: Krötenliebe/Toads and Tempest
Antje Rávic Strubel: In den Wäldern des menschlichen Herzens/Into the Woods of the Human Heart
Senthuran Varatharajah: Vor der Zunahme der Zeichen/Before the Signs Mount Up
Rasha Khayat: Weil wir längst woanders sind/Because We're Elsewhere Now

Finn-Ole Heinrich: Die erstaunlichen Abenteuer der Maulina Schmitt/The Amazing and Astonishing Adventures of Maulina Schmitt
Kirsten Fuchs: Mädchenmeute/Girl Gang

I might be too busy being driven onto beaches to do all the translations myself. If you have unlimited funds and would like to give me a part-time job doing exactly this, feel free to contact me. I understand if you'd rather invest your unlimited funds in getting rid of reactionary world leaders, though, so if I don't hear from you I'll know that's where your priorities lie. That's fine.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer – A Translator's Note

February 2016 

I have just submitted my translation of Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar. It’s the best book I’ve translated so far, has stretched me the most and required the most drastic approaches. I feel tearful. For added bathos – and this is a book with a lot of bathos – my email got an out-of-office reply from the publisher.

I’ve been following the novel since 2008, when Clemens first published what became the final chapter as a short story in an anthology. It was even filthier than the present version. He read it at an event that was recorded for radio, checking nervously with his editor if it was really OK to put it on record. Last week I read from that final chapter myself, blushing, and was pleased that other people liked it too.

It took a long time to find a publisher willing to take a risk on this novel, which was originally published in German in 2013. It is long, which means my translation has been expensive. And it’s a playful, ambitious, neo-modernist, Marxism-tinged exploration of the development of the east German prostitution market, from next to nothing in 1989 to full decriminalization and diversification in the present day. Not everybody’s cup of tea.

Translating it was all-consuming. It required a great deal of research because I wasn’t directly familiar with the sex industry before working on it. But it was also emotionally draining because of the intensity of the writing. Translators are used to immersing ourselves in writers’ work but this book – and Clemens’s writing in general – is so unflinching that it affected me more than ever before.


Most translation requires us to explain the source culture to some extent. In this case, though, the legal situation with regard to prostitution in Germany is completely different to that in the UK and the US, even Nevada. Since 2001, German law has enabled prostitutes to work under regular employment contracts, explicitly stating that prostitution is no longer an unconscionable act. Sex work is legal and widely accepted – although the area is not free from moral judgement – and sexual services are advertised plainly. That means the language around it is different.

I started out by looking for British ads for sexual services. They do exist but they are so euphemistic as to be no use to me; the language in Bricks and Mortar is very much to the point. Meyer plays on the codes used in small ads, abbreviations and cute phrases, and I needed an equivalent that made sense. Thankfully, there are internet forums where punters rate ‘adult service providers’, and one of them provides a glossary containing exactly what I needed. I also read the Feminist Press’s very useful $pread: The Best of the Magazine that Illuminated the Sex Industry and Started a Media Revolution for a sense of how people in the US sex industry talk about their work, and many articles in the British press. TV dramas were also helpful for a sense of how readers might expect sex workers to talk, especially the excellent Band of Gold.

Another key difference between the cultures is that a lot of prostitution in Germany takes place in apartments in normal buildings; I once lived above one, in fact, which closed down after a shooting. Street prostitution exists but is unsafe, like anywhere else, and only comes up on the margins of the novel. Again, that makes the language different. Where British and American sex workers speak of “clients”, I preferred to stick to the German “guests” with its suggestion of hospitality, an issue several characters raise.

And once I started creating my own language for the novel’s unique situation, I felt I could take that approach even further. So readers will come across two neologisms – “in the Zone” and “after the Wall”. I hope this is the kind of novel in which readers can deal with new phrases. I’m very pleased with “in the Zone” because it sounds aptly science-fictional, referring simply to East Germany in communist days. And “after the Wall” is shorthand for “after the fall of the Iron Curtain”. Where German has the succinct “Wende” for the turning point in its late-20th-century history, a sailing metaphor, English struggles with all sorts of long-winded explanations. Meyer writes very rhythmically and it was important to me to cut anything that interrupted the flow – although that flow is sometimes jagged and abrupt, sometimes smooth and colloquial.

Emboldened, I then did something translators of “serious literature” are not supposed to do. I changed a character’s name. A hard-punning punter by the name of Ecki – a quiet homage to Hubert Fichte’s Jäcki in Die Palette – has an internet radio show called Eckis Edelkirsch, named after a cheap cherry liqueur. But that reference wasn’t strong enough for me, or not strong enough for a character who’s anything but subtle. I wanted the crass “cherry”, the overtly sexual title for an overtly sexual show, not something foreign and unpronounceable. And so Ecki became Jerry and his show became Jerry’s Cherry Pie, inspired by a sex shop in West Ealing. Meyer gave me permission for the change – and Jerry is still not far from Jäcki. Jerry’s two chapters were a joy to translate, punning and rhyming and getting almost psychedelic.

My favourite chapter, though, is now called ‘My Huckleberry Friend’. Meyer, knowing I was so keen on it, gave me the first page of the chapter from the first galley proof – in a frame – for my fortieth birthday. It’s typical of his writing, interweaving two women’s voices and never making it quite clear whether what’s happening is really happening. The German title – like many chapter titles in the book – is a song, a slow waltz in fact. The two sex workers may or may not end up dancing to the song, which isn’t mentioned by name other than in the melancholy title, a song about saying goodbye: ‘Sag beim Abschied leise Servus’. Although the direct reference to parting is lost, I hope my new title conjures up Audrey Hepburn’s yearning for glamour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a film I’m sure the two characters might watch together. And ‘Moon River’ is a slow waltz that many readers can probably hum, keeping that essential rhythmic element intact.


July 2016

As of the 4th of July, the Commons inquiry into prostitution has recommended legalizing brothels and soliciting as quickly as possible in the UK. Bricks and Mortar may give British readers an idea of what might happen once sex workers are allowed to work in greater safety. First and foremost, though, I hope readers will value it as much as I do, as a novel that makes no apologies as it pushes back the boundaries of what literature can do. ‘A journey into the night, brutal, dark, somnambulistic, surreal and often cruelly precise. A book about Germany, today’ wrote the critic Volker Weidermann in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. He was right. 


17 October 2016

Bricks and Mortar is published in the UK today by Fitcarraldo Editions. My copies should arrive on Wednesday.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Sie können aber gut Deutsch – Ade, Chamisso-Preis

Der Chamisso-Preis schafft sich ab. Die Trägerin des Literaturpreises für „herausragende auf Deutsch schreibende Autoren, deren Werk von einem Kulturwechsel geprägt ist“, die Robert-Bosch-Stiftung, begründete die Einstellung mit der nicht unzutreffenden Aussage, Schreibende mit Migrationsgeschichte könnten inzwischen viele andere Preise gewinnen. Geschäftsführerin Uta-Micaela Dürig sagte: „Viele dieser Autoren wollen heute nur für ihre literarischen Leistungen gewürdigt werden, und nicht wegen ihres biografischen Hintergrunds.“
Bei diesem Satz sollte man aufhorchen, denn er ist ein Zeichen, dass die Organisatorinnen auf die Schriftsteller hören. Der Chamisso-Preis entstand in den 1980er Jahren, angetrieben von Harald Weinrich, u.a. Professor für Deutsch als Fremdsprache. Die Auszeichnung förderte ursprünglich „deutsch schreibende Autoren nicht deutscher Muttersprache“. Sie war also die mit Preisgeld aufgeladene Verkörperung des zweischneidigen Kompliments „Sie können aber gut Deutsch!“ Das mag im letzten Jahrhundert angemessen gewesen sein; tatsächlich hat sich aber durch den Preis oder vielleicht nur nebenbei viel geändert – „Gastarbeiterliteratur“ ist als Begriff durch „Migrationsliteratur“ oder den schauderhaften Euphemismus „Chamissoliteratur“ ersetzt worden; Autoren, die woanders geboren sind, zeigen Präsenz auf Nominierungslisten und in den Medien und vertreten Deutschland im Ausland. Was diese aber nicht mehr brauchen, ist eine ins Gönnerhafte neigende Auszeichnung für ihre (fremd-)sprachlichen Leistungen.

Literaturpreise schaffen Aufmerksamkeit, keine Frage. In Großbritannien wurde der jetzige Baileys Prize für Romane von Schriftstellerinnen ins Leben gerufen, nachdem 1991 keine der sechs Nominierten für den Booker Prize Frauen waren. Inzwischen ist der Baileys Prize wirtschaftlich sehr erfolgreich; die Autorinnen auf der Shortlist können damit rechnen, viele neue Leserinnen zu gewinnen. Der Unterschied zum Chamisso-Preis? Die Initiative kam von innen: von Frauen (und Männern) innerhalb des Literaturbetriebs. Die Preisjury besteht seitdem ausschließlich aus Frauen. Der Chamisso-Preis wurde von Menschen ohne Migrationserfahrung gegründet; in der diesjährigen Jury sitzen sechs Biodeutsche und Feridun Zaimoglu. Der Preis ist – natürlich wohlmeinend – von oben herab entstanden und wird noch heute so verliehen.

Über die Jahre hat die Bosch-Stiftung versucht, den Chamisso-Preis zeitgemäßer zu gestalten. Die Kriterien wandelten von der nichtdeutschen Muttersprache zum prägenden Kulturwechsel; 2015 ging die Auszeichnung an Esther Kinsky und Uljana Wolf, zwei in Deutschland geborene Schriftstellerinnen, die üblicherweise von dem Migrantenetikett verschont bleiben. Das war ein großer und richtiger Schritt. Die Stiftung schreibt dazu auf ihrer Webseite: „Die gesellschaftliche Realität zeigt heute, dass eine stetig wachsende Autorengruppe mit Migrationsgeschichte Deutsch als selbstverständliche Muttersprache spricht. Für die Literatur dieser Autoren ist der Sprach- und Kulturwechsel zwar thematisch oder stilistisch prägend, sie ist jedoch zu einem selbstverständlichen und unverzichtbarem Bestandteil deutscher Gegenwartsliteratur geworden.“

Ebenso richtig. Nur ist diese Botschaft nicht in der Gesellschaft angekommen. Immer noch müssen die Ausgezeichneten den braven Ausländer spielen, immer noch wird ihr Anderssein betont, die sprachliche Bereicherung, die sie einbringen. Nicht so sehr die Bosch-Stiftung sondern Moderatoren und Journalisten stellen immer noch dieselben Fragen, auf die die Ausgezeichneten immer nur dieselben Phrasen geben können: „Ich habe mich in die deutsche Sprache verliebt“, „auf Deutsch schreiben ist für mich befreiend“, „ich musste mir die deutsche Sprache aneignen, um zu überleben...“ Anstatt zuzugeben, dass es schlicht bizarr wäre, auf die besseren Verdienstmöglichkeiten auf dem deutschsprachigen Literaturmarkt zu verzichten, wenn man schon mal seinen Lebensmittelpunkt in Deutschland, Österreich oder der Schweiz hat. 

„Chamisso-Autoren“ sitzen  zusammen auf Podien und sollen übers Ausländersein reden und nicht übers Schreiben. Sind keine Autoren wie alle anderen, sollen keine Geschichten erzählen wie alle anderen, sondern nur Geschichten übers Ausländersein. Haben sprachliche Würze zu sein in der faden deutschen Suppe. Die deutsche Sprache ist in dieser Erzählung der rettende Anker; die deutsche (oder eben österreichische oder schweizerische) Gesellschaft das Mutterschiff. Die Preisträger gehören einer eigenen Kategorie an: einer literarischen Parallelgesellschaft, von der Mehrheit erschaffen. Seit Jahren aber rebellieren Autoren dagegen. 2008 schrieb Preisträger Saša Stanišić über drei Mythen vom Schreiben der Migranten“: als philologische Kategorie, mit monothematischen Stoffen und als sprachliche Bereicherung. Mehrere Preisträger und Nichtpreisträger haben sich kritisch geäußert, weigern sich, den „Kanakenbonus“ (Imran Ayata) auszunutzen oder die „Berufsfremde“ (Terézia Mora) zu spielen. Bloß: welch schreibender Mensch lehnt €15,000 Preisgeld ab? Da zeugt die Entscheidung, Autoren nicht mehr für ihren biografischen Hintergrund anzuerkennen von Respekt für ihre Wünsche. 

Jörg Sundermeier schrieb in der taz, ein Preis, der „Deutsch endlich in einer weltoffenen Literatur“ ankommen lässt sei nötiger denn je. Das stimmt sogar, aber kann nicht jeder Literaturpreis, der für alle Deutschschreibende offen ist, genau das erreichen? Ist nicht ein Bachmannpreis, ein Deutscher Buchpreis für Schreibende mit anderen Herkunftssprachen oder ethnischen Hintergründen viel mehr Wert als diese paternalistische Auszeichnung, die das Gespräch in eine einzelne Richtung lenkt? Es liegt an den Verlagen, marginalisierte Autorinnen zu entdecken und zu fördern, sie für Preise einzureichen – denn marginalisiert sind noch viele, und der Weg zum Verlag ist schwer. Es läge an der Deutschen Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung, endlich eine Autorin aus einem anderen Kulturkreis mit dem Büchner-Preis auszuzeichnen. Auswahl gäbe es da – auch dank der Arbeit der Bosch-Stiftung – reichlich. Der Chamisso-Preis in seiner bisherigen Form hat ausgedient. 

Das Gute behält die Bosch-Stiftung konsequenterweise bei: das Programm, bei dem Autoren in Schulen gehen und Kindern zeigen, dass nicht alle deutschsprachige Schriftsteller deutschsprachig auf die Welt kommen. Dadurch werden sie zu Vorbildern und inspirieren womöglich eine neue Generation. Ilija Trojanow und José F.A. Oliver klagten in der FAZ, das würde sie auf eine „bildungspolitisch nützliche Rolle“ reduzieren. Aber eben diese wertvolle Arbeit kann der deutschsprachigen Literatur zugute kommen, sie mit Nicht-Arztsöhnen beleben, Kinder von syrischen Flüchtlingen oder englischen Übersetzerinnen beflügeln. Die Bosch-Stiftung könnte auch Eigeninitiativen von marginalisierten Autoren unterstützen; die Zeitschrift Freitext zum Beispiel möchte sich wiederbeleben. Wer Geld zu verteilen hat, wird es nicht schwer haben, Projekte aufzutun. Der Chamisso-Preis schafft sich ab, und das ist gut so – aber wir dürfen auf ihre Weiterexistenz gespannt sein.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Women in Translation: a Podcast

Welcome to August 2016! I spent yesterday making my way home from the UK after the BCLT summer school, an extravaganza of literary translation and creative writing in the holiday-time haven of the University of East Anglia. Aside from leading a group of very talented people working on rendering passages from Rasha Khayat's novel Weil wir längst woanders sind into English, I also chaired a panel discussion. Three guesses what it was about – women in translation.

You can hear me talking to the publishers Laura Barber (Portobello) and Deborah Smith (Tilted Axis) and the publicity, marketing and sales person Nicky Smalley (And Other Stories) in a podcast. We covered a few topics: what they actually do all day long, the year of publishing women, how they market translations by women, how they find books... and what we can do to change the bizarre imbalance. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Women in Translation Month 2016: an Introduction

Did you know that less than a third of all literary translations published in the UK and the US were originally written by women? Did you know that women writers win far fewer prizes for their translated books than male writers?

Women in Translation Month is all about appreciating the great women writers who do get translated – and of course the people who bring them to us, their translators and publishers. It’s an opportunity to join in a worldwide conversation about outstanding writing from all over the globe. Bookshops and libraries in the UK, US, Germany, France and New Zealand are highlighting translated books by women. Bloggers are sharing their impressions, the twitterati are pulling together under #WITMonth, and anyone can be part of it just by reading a book.

With only 30% of translated fiction being female-authored, it’s a safe bet that those books by women that do get translated are genuinely excellent. Women around the world are writing explicitly feminist fiction like Angélica Gorodischer from Argentina, bringing us family stories like France’s Marie NDiaye, exploring historical issues like Chinese writer Yan Geling or sexuality like Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay from India, or giving us intercultural crime novels like Finland’s Kati Hiekkapelto. Despite their relative rarity in English, translated women offer a wealth of diversity.

So why not join in August’s Women in Translation Month? Simply pick up a book and enjoy it – or you could go a step further and write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, keep an eye out for literary events, hold a WiT-themed reading group, invite friends to present their favourite foreign females at a party, learn a new language and travel the world in search of an undiscovered woman writer to translate, set up a publishing house… the sky’s the limit.

 If you're in Berlin, you could head for ocelot on Brunnenstraße. They've put together a fine selection of books written by women and translated into English – and German! Pop by and support your local bookshop and global women writers in one fell swoop. 

The picture at the top is part of an artwork by Heather Marie Scholl. If you are Heather Marie Scholl and you read this, thanks for the great work and I hope it's OK to use the picture totally out of context. If not, please let me know.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Women in Translation Month: A Useful List

August is Women in Translation Month! #WITMonth! I approached my local independent bookshop and asked if they might like to do a special table, and they said yes! Then they said could I send them a list of suggested titles and they'd see what they could get hold of...

So I asked on Facebook and rather a lot of books came together. Here's the list for your inspiration. I used a fairly random cut-off date of 2010 publication and I've only given the most basic information – title, author, publisher. It still took all day though, so please just find out any additional stuff you need of your own accord.

You could use it to find books you'd like to read or review, to help out your bookseller, to brainwash your friends, whatever. Enjoy!

UPDATE: Susan Bernofsky has kindly put the list in alphabetical order, and as Margie Joseph sang: Like the size of the fish that the man claimed broke his wrist, it's growing. A number of bookshops are joining in, not just Ocelot in Berlin but also Ink84 and Belgravia Books in London and a few more in the pipeline. Watch out for that hashtag!