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.
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.