Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Stephanie Bart: Deutscher Meister

I first came across Johann Rukelie Trollmann when translating the new exhibition at the German Resistance Memorial Center. He's a fascinating historical figure who stood up to the Nazis in his own way. Stephanie Bart's novel Deutscher Meister (her first with a major publisher) tells part of his story, wisely restricted to the time between March and July of 1933. 

The Nazis have come to power and are also asserting their presence in the sporting world, with boxing being made compulsory in schools. The story begins with the expulsion of all Jewish boxers, functionaries and managers from the boxing association, but Trollmann’s case is less clear-cut. Labelled “Gipsy” by the press, he comes from a Sinto family and has suffered discrimination in his career for years. At this point, however, Nazi ideologists have not yet decided whether to classify the Sinti as “Aryan” or not, and so Trollmann is reluctantly allowed to continue fighting. 

Using real-life characters in fiction is tricky – it can feel disrespectful when a writer assumes too much about what's going on inside their heads. Instead of focusing entirely on Trollmann, Bart also shows us a host of different characters around him, which I think dodges this dilemma rather cleverly. So as well as the individual story of how Trollmann was cheated out of the German Champion title in the light-heavyweight category and deliberately lost his last fight, we get a broader picture of Berlin in the summer after Hitler came to power. 

These characters are one of the novel's key strengths, for me. They come from all corners of society - boxing functionaries, SA brawlers, bakery sales girls, society gentlemen, workers and schoolgirls. And we see them either settling into life under the Nazis or beginning to suffer. We watch Berlin turning from an open, bohemian city to a place of danger for anyone who doesn't fit into the Nazis' bizarre understanding of how Germans ought to be. There's a lot of dialogue, making the most of the Berliners' sharp tongues but not using too much dialect – another thing that often backfires. And there's humour, which took me a while to pick up on but once it hit home I was chortling my way through until the laughter stuck in my throat, especially at the descriptions of historical events like the book-burning and the mass murders of Nazi opponents in Köpenick.
The other stand-out strength is the physical descriptions. It’s not easy to write about boxing without slowing the pace, but Bart uses all sorts of tricks to get around that problem. She varies sentence length, makes subtle use of metaphor (one round of boxing is compared to Trollmann playing a drum kit, for instance), sometimes dispenses with verbs to add speed, and generally shows a great deal of skill. So much so that I read the 100 pages devoted to the main fight in a single, breath-taking sitting. 

Although it may not be breaking any literary moulds, Deutscher Meister is an ambitious novel, and while I found I had to overcome a slow start I got hooked pretty quickly. I hope a British publisher will pick it up – New Books in German recommends! That would even reconcile me momentarily to the British obsession with the Nazis, because the book is less about Nazis as such and more about those whose lives they harmed, those who stood up to them in small ways. You can read a sample translation by Imogen Taylor at the NBG link just above here. I think you should.  

Monday, 24 November 2014

Hosts of Translated-from-German Books on Impac Longlist

The 142 books longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award include shit-loads of translations from German. To wit:

Julia Franck: Back to Back (tr. Anthea Bell)

Sabine Gruber: Roman Elegy (tr. Peter Lewis)

Daniela Krien: Someday We'll Tell Each Other Everything (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

Pedro Lenz: Naw Much of a Talker (tr. Donal McLaughlin)

Eugen Ruge: In Times of Fading Light (tr. Anthea Bell)

Simon Urban: Plan D (translated by me - thank you again, person at the zlb, for the patriotic nominations, ahem)

We all stand to win huge bags full of cash, although my money's on Eugen Ruge.

Translating the Untranslatable in Berlin

I love this idea and I'm looking forward to it immensely. Think of it as a reward for having stuck out a good chunk of the Berlin winter:

The "untranslatable" label is stuck on all sorts of things from puns and pop songs to poems in dialect and political polemic. In fact we translators disprove the concept every day. On 6 February 2015, Jake Schneider and Madame Zik will be hosting an evening of English translations of allegedly untranslatable German texts at the classy Villa Neukölln. This is where you come in. Each participant picks 5 minutes' worth of text (or another medium) that they would consider "untranslatable," and one of the others has to translate it anyway in the privacy of their own home, then present it onstage to an audience of friends and fellow translators. Cabaret act to follow. To participate, email Jake Schneider at jdschneider at gmail dot com. Deadline for signing up: December 20

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

BookSerf in Berlin

Oh my goodness, there's this amazing thing! BookSerf is a website out of Istanbul that connects people who want to lend and borrow books from each other. Go and look at it right now, because they're coming to Berlin - tomorrow! They're launching with an opening gala in Neukölln, which I'll probably try and go to after my event earlier on. Here's the Facebook event page for it. Go and look at that as well, please. You can just turn up and enjoy the live music and general partying with fellow book lovers, or you can choose eight non-German books you'd like to lend out to people for two weeks and take them along and photograph them and show them around. They say non-German books because they want people to buy German books. Isn't that adorable? So do I.

I'm definitely going to try and go along, although I don't think I can lug eight books from one event to another. Everybody come (after you come and watch me saying the F-word rather a lot at Schöneberg Town Hall with Deniz Utlu, obviously)!

See you there!

Don't forget!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

CrossKultur in Şöneberg

It'll be neither angry, angry, angry nor particularly crunchy, as the name might suggest – in fact, CrossKultur is an arts festival across cultures in Berlin's borough of Schöneberg (where I got German grammar drummed into me at the Hartnackschule). There's film, music, theatre, exhibitions, discussions, and all the stuff. Plus of course literature! That means readings by Emrah Serbes, Alina Bronsky – who you'll know from her English translations, no doubt, by Tim Mohr – and Urmila Goel.

And also me and Deniz Utlu, reading from his novel Die Ungehaltenen in German and English at Rathaus Schöneberg on Thursday. Exciting!

Alternative Top Ten

The usual bestseller lists in Germany are published by Der Spiegel and are often dominated by crime writing and translated (genre) fiction, which is not so much my bag. But look, I've found this alternative list compiled by the Berlin-Brandenburg station radioeins: die radioeins-Bücherliste. It comes out every Monday and consists of titles that sell well in bookshops around the region. This week it's topped by Sofi Oksanen and Robert Seethaler – two writers I approve of – and contains both fiction and non-fiction, including a diatribe against lazy teenagers translated from the Italian.

The Spiegel list is more accurate, compiled from electronic sales data from 500 bookshops around Germany as opposed to radioeins's vague "asking bookshops in Berlin, Potsdam, Cottbus, Frankfurt/Oder, Brandenburg and Rheinsberg". But the radioeins list is more personal, I suspect, reflecting what you might be advised if you asked a local bookseller for a tip. Sympatico.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Saving the ocelot

My favourite local bookshop has gone into insolvency. I've only written about the place once, which is odd because I go there a lot. It's an ambitious project – a smartly designed bricks-and-mortar store with an outstanding selection of titles, apparently excellent coffee, events, a blog, and an online store of its own. I'm talking about ocelot on Brunnenstraße, obviously. Owner Frithjof Klepp set out to make his shop stand out, and he bet big. That design didn't come cheap, and nor did the custom-made online shop. Unfortunately, it seems that extra costs for the website and unforeseen sickness pay blew the budget.

But this wouldn't be Berlin if insolvency were a genuine nail in the coffin of culture. Look at the Suhrkamp publishing house, which opened insolvency proceedings in May of last year and is still going strong. Even the city's new airport is bankrupt before the first plane has ever landed there. Unlike BER, Klepp does have a business plan. ocelot will continue trading and is looking for investors.

If you're in Berlin, the best way to support this excellent bookshop is to go in and buy books. This coming Saturday there are two special projects going on, though – this is a place with a lot of loyal fans. One plan is a flashmob: you can print out an ocelot mask and meet like-minded book-lovers across the road at 4 p.m. to descend on the shop and prowl around, before buying a book. If you're not the kind of person who likes to wear animal masks on public thoroughfares, you can also just turn up at any time on Saturday, get your picture taken and uploaded to this as-yet empty site in support of the place (and presumably buy a book). They explain it better on this Facebook event page.

If you're not in Berlin but you are in Germany and you like ordering books online, you can use their website to do so, with free delivery. And I believe they're planning to add international deliveries at some point – which would be an excellent way to get hold of German books when you live outside the German-speaking world, don't you agree?

It seems a little odd that so many people would rally around one particular bookshop when all of them have it tough. It feels like favouritism, in a way. But I have to say that ocelot is a very special bookshop and it would hurt if it had to close down. Maybe it's the enthusiasm the place radiates, the love it seems to give back. Pop in and buy a book, why don't you? Every little helps.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Swiss Book Prize to Lukas Bärfuss

They announced it on Sunday: The Swiss Book Prize for books written in German by Swiss people has gone to Lukas Bärfuss for Koala. As a friend pointed out, now I'm really going to have to read it. I was blown away by Bärfuss's previous novel, Hundert Tage, which is available in Tess Lewis's no doubt outstanding translation as One Hundred Days. The new one has now notched up three major prizes, plus nominations and shortlistings. It's about a writer guy whose brother commits suicide, and it's also about koalas and how humans interact with animals (a popular topos in German-language writing at the moment).

So I'll read it. I'll just squint when I catch sight of the author's photo, which doesn't make him look like a person you'd want to hang out with. But hey, I don't have to.

Bärfuss gets 30,000 Swiss Francs (about 20,000 pounds or 25,000 euros or 30,000 US dollars). The judges chose his novel because it "boldly links big subjects such as suicide, colonialism and performance ideology". I'll read it soon.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Open Mike Prize to Doris Anselm

The name Open Mike is a superb misnomer. This literary competition for unpublished under-35s writing in German involves no spontaneous performance whatsoever. Instead, eligible applicants submit prose and poetry anonymously to a panel of professional editors, who choose their 22 favourites. Then they all come together for a two-day reading extravaganza in Berlin, where three writers choose the winners. There's an audience prize but it's awarded by a secret committee of five average Joes (I was once one of them but I got all excited and told people in advance).

Life often gets in the way of me spending two full days in a row listening to readings, and this year I only saw a handful of the candidates in action. That might well be an advantage because it means I don't get jaded like the misery-puss at Die Zeit* seems to have done. Twenty-two texts is a lot and if you have a short turnover time to write about the experience, you probably need a hook of the "Where are all the authentic writers?" kind to overcome the inevitable brain-deadness afterwards. Complaining about professionalism in literary competitions, though, feels rather patronising to me.

So what happened? There were a good few writers in the pot from Germany's two creative writing schools. I saw one of them, with a text that spiralled around self-referentiality and was effective enough to make me feel bad about thoroughly enjoying the one that followed, which was about a young man who worked in a hospice. Not bad enough to think that latter one didn't genuinely deserve the audience prize it got, though, and to keep a close eye in future on its writer Gerasimos Bekas. Also, I was charmed by his son, who came and sat on his lap a couple of rows in front of me. You do get up close to the writers at the Open Mike, that's for sure. And I enjoyed Astrid Sozio's story too, scary stuff that took a sideways glance at poverty.

Then there was a break while the judges deliberated and then a couple of speeches, including Björn Kuhligk's American-style graduation address to the authors. Be Rilke or get a job, he told them, and keep writing, but make sure you write what you want to write and not what you think the market wants. Björn Kuhligk writes poetry and has a job as a bookseller. The judges gave €2000 each to Mareike Schneider and Robert Stripling for prose and poetry respectively, and then said the story they all loved the most was by Doris Anselm. And I read it later and I can see why: written in a mix of street-speak and museum language, it's a piece about kids who hang out in a shopping centre and where something is wrong that gave me a big long goose-pimple of "Woah, what's happening here?" And it gets the right balance, I think, doesn't read like a posh kid looking down her nose at the lumpen proletariat. Plus Anselm was so visibly elated to have won that I couldn't help liking her.

Those complaints about professionalism, I don't know. I find it awkward listening to unfinished texts read by people crippled with fear. The Open Mike's submission process is anonymous and the editors specifically stated that they enjoyed the opportunity to single out texts that weren't necessarily "marketable", unlike in their everyday work. Certainly, a whole novel in the style of Anselm's story would be hard to stomach - and I mean that in the most admiring way. The Open Mike is a discovery engine for the German-language publishing business, yes, but I don't think the people who enter and the people who win go on to produce palatable mush. They just present their work well, and what's wrong with that?

*I debated with myself and decided that misery-puss is gently pejorative but not sexist. Could be a grumpy tomcat.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Stephen Spender Prize to Iain Galbraith, Jan Wagner

The Stephen Spender Prize honours poetry translations, which anyone can submit with a brief commentary. There are three age categories, with this year's 14-and-under going to Alexia Sloane and the 18-and-under to Sam Norman. In the "open" category – for adults, in other words – this year's first prize has gone to my friend and teacher Iain Galbraith for a gorgeous rendering of Jan Wagner's poem Quittenpastete/Quince Jelly. Iain also has two poems in the "commended" section, another Wagner one and one by the Austrian poet Peter Waterhouse. German contemporary poetry did very well this year in general, with a Michael Krüger poem translated by Hans-Christian Oeser also commended. Plus one by Rilke, translated by last year's Schlegel-Tieck Prize winner Ian Crockatt.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I have problems with some German contemporary poetry. Read aloud, which is the main way I consume it, it often seems so cryptic to me – filtered through my language issues, perhaps – that I wonder what's the point of publishing it, if no one else in the world has the vaguest chance of understanding anything. The work of Jan Wagner (and indeed Peter Waterhouse and Michael Krüger) is different: when I hear it, or read it, I understand something of what it's about, to me at least. In fact with Wagner there's a lot of other stuff going on, playful trickery with metre and sound and authorship, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating it at first hearing, or first glance. And Iain's versions give a wonderful impression of that initial accessibility with complexity hiding underneath – the winning poem is written in Sapphic stanzas, for goodness' sake, but you still get a moment out of someone else's life and an appreciation of nature's bounty. Tangy. I assume that takes a very long time to get right.

I once stood very close to Jan Wagner at a crowded event – I don't know him personally – and admired his lovely skin. Next year Arc Publications will be publishing a collection of his poems in Iain Galbraith's translation, Self-portrait with a Swarm of Bees.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Martin Chalmers, 1948-2014

Martin Chalmers was buried today at the Alter Matthäus Cemetery in Berlin, in the same ground as the Brothers Grimm, the poet May Ayim, the musician Rio Reiser and many other Berliners ordinary and extraordinary in their own ways. It was his favourite cemetery. Martin's fellow translator and writer Iain Galbraith read Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" by the grave. 

I didn’t know Martin well but our paths crossed a few times here in Berlin, all of them memorable. The first was on a long evening of eating, drinking and talking with writers and translators at the Literary Colloquium, followed by a boozy train ride back into the city. It was a good way to meet someone I’d admired – anything but formal – and I remember him talking very knowledgably about Berlin history in a voice that was occasionally too quiet, and also about becoming a grandfather. The most recent occasion was in April of last year, when Martin had already been diagnosed with cancer but agreed to talk on a panel at a workshop for young translators. Although I cringe to ask people to do things for free, Martin was perfectly happy to pass on some of his experience and seemed to enjoy discovering an obscure corner of Neukölln; his bio states that he lived in Rixdorf, the old name for the borough or the lesser-known name of a very small part of it. That strikes me as typical of him – a winking eye for historical detail as expressed in words.

Martin was originally a historian but became a translator when he’d “run out of money”, as he said in an interview for New Books in German. He grew up in Glasgow; his mother was German and he spent a lot of time as a child with his German oma, who looked after him but had no English. At the funeral, his friend Robert Lumley said he’d gone to the pictures with her and whispered translations into her ear. I understand he recently found the place in East Prussia, now Poland, where she grew up. You can read some of Martin’s contemplative writing about his family, and other things, on his website.

Martin translated a whole swathe of German-language writers, mainly twentieth-century and contemporary, acting very much as a champion for them: Bertolt Brecht, Hubert Fichte, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Erich Fried, Herta Müller, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Joachim Fest, Sherko Fatah, Alexander Kluge, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard, Erich Hackl, and his partner Esther Kinsky. He was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck prize in 2004 for his translation of Viktor Klemperer’s I Shall Bear Witness – three volumes for which he also wrote the introductions. He taught at the British Centre for Literary Translation summer school; our mutual friend Stefan Tobler was one of his students, bitten by Martin’s bug several years before he set up And Other Stories

At the funeral, friends spoke of Martin Chalmers as a pacifist with a huge amount of empathy and a great walker, a man who loved exploring cities on foot and talking on the go. The Seagull Books publisher Naveen Kishore tells a story about Martin and Esther taking him on a very long walk in the Berlin snow; I think they ended up at the cemetery where he’s now buried. He loved music and poetry and the ceremony reflected that beautifully – anecdotes about punk gigs, a story of Martin’s after which we attempted to sing his favourite hymn, a song by the graveside, Brecht and Arnold and Johannes Bobrowski. I will miss his occasional kind emails correcting things I got wrong on my blog and proffering his own opinions, his dry sense of humour and his taste in German literature, which was different to mine. 

I will think of him, always an inspiring man, and I will try to be as good a translator and advocate as he was and as active a walker and a thinker.