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Translation Wish-List

NBG asked six translators to recommend their new finds and lost gems of German-language literature, texts they really felt deserved to be translated. The thirteen books they have selected demonstrate the breadth of what is out there, as well as the diversity of interests and tastes within the translating community. By Jenny Watson.

Martin Chalmers:

One of the difficulties facing the reception of contemporary Germanlanguage literature is a lack of familiarity with the specific traditions of German writing, which continue to be significant today (for instance the importance of a diversity of short and ‘small’ forms). It is only in recent decades that Fontane and Büchner and perhaps Kleist have begun to be included in ‘the canon’. But there are a number of other authors who very much deserve attention. If I had to single out one then I would choose Jean Paul Richter, who called himself simply Jean Paul, in honour of Rousseau. And of his novels I would choose Flegeljahre (‘The Wayward Years’).

It’s perhaps surprising that Jean Paul is so little known in English, given his profound influence on composers in the Central European tradition from Schumann and Mahler right up to the present. The opening set piece of Flegeljahre is one of the great comic scenes of literature. The will of the immensely wealthy Herr van der Kabel is to be read and seven upright burghers hope to inherit. But to their shock the main heir may be the naïve peasant’s son, Walt, but only if he fulfils a number of tasks or labours – to be supervised by the disappointed inheritors – which include tuning a piano for a day and becoming in turn a gardener, a notary and a pastor. In fact, the reader never finds out whether Walt inherits, nor whether he wins the hand of Wina, the daughter of General Zablocki, nor quite how rascally his brother, the flute-player Vult, really is. Instead the novel proceeds by digression, shifts in narrative perspective, parodies of Romantic sentiment and the introduction of the alter ego of the author as the author of the novel being written, before coming to its quite inconclusive, good-natured conclusion. Flegeljahre has something of Laurence Sterne, whom Jean Paul admired, and something of Flann O’Brien, and is an inimitable reflection of the small-town Germany of 1800, while possessing a modernity which has been increasingly appreciated by contemporary writers since Arno Schmidt.
Martin Chalmers Photo: private
Martin Chalmers’ translation of Peter Handke’s Storm Still (Immer noch Sturm) has recently been published. Among other translations to appear this year will be Alexander Kluge’s The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8th April 1945 (Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945) and Sherko Fatah’s The Dark Ship (Das dunkle Schiff).
Anthea Bell:

My recommendation goes to a short collection of five stories by Karen Duve, Grrrimm, published last year for the 200th anniversary of the first edition of the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales. I was surprised that no one snapped it up, but I suppose Philip Pullman’s retelling made publishers think anything else was superfluous. However, Duve’s wry look at five tales is different, more like Angela Carter with a touch of Terry Pratchett. She wrote them on separate occasions, and Galiani published them together for the anniversary. The heroine of the frog story is not a princess, but the daughter of an international criminal, who hides incriminating material in her golden ball; the sheepdog-sized frog who tackles the case is revealed, back in human form, as the policeman she fancies, handsome but still smelling rather froggy. A prince kisses Briar Rose awake only to be spurned. A long life spent waiting leaves him a frail hypochondriac, and she prefers his greatnephew. The longest tale is Duve’s version of Red Riding Hood, not a small child but Elsie, a feisty, resourceful girl in a high mountain village in the Balkans. Local hopes for its development as a ski resort have dried up, along with EU money for the infrastructure, no one collects the rubbish and werewolves roam freely. We are close to vampire country, but Elsie, her lover Stepan and Granny, herself a fairly benevolent werewolf, defeat the undead by guile. Duve, like Angela Carter before her, respects the originals, which is necessary if such glosses on tradition are to be amusing rather than facetious, and again like Carter she pulls it off.
Anthea Bell Photo: private
Anthea Bell is currently working on Ferdinand von Schirach’s Tabu for Little, Brown, and Walter Kempowski’s Alles umsonst for Granta.
Donal McLaughlin:

The overlooked author I’d love to translate is Franco Supino (born 1965). The son of Italian immigrants to Switzerland, Supino writes in German. From the moment I first read him, I’ve been a huge fan of what this fellow writer does with language.

For the English-speaking world, I’d highlight two of his six novels (to date). Ciao, amore ciao (2004) is based on a true story that long overshadowed the Sanremo Song Festival. In 1967, Egyptian-born diva Dalida and cantautore Luigi Tenco were favourites to win, with a song composed by the Italian protest singer. Their unexpected exit in the first round led to Tenco’s suicide. In Supino’s novel, the main characters – Iolanda and Gigi Mai – fall in love at first sight, and the story moves between Egypt, France and Italy. Set against the background of the emerging culture of protest, the novel also reflects the failure of the entertainment industry to respond to the pressing issues of the late 1960s.

Music had already featured prominently in Supino’s first novel. Musica Leggera (1995) is a touching love story – that of Maria and Markus – told by a narrator as he compiles a ‘concert’ for Maria. The book’s four parts are, simultaneously, four imaginary ‘records’ that contain the soundtrack of their 1980s youth. We are talking a debut to die for here. As the great Peter Bichsel noted at the time: ‘Supino has pulled off a book that hundreds of writers before him wanted to write, and did write, but failed.’
Donal McLaughlin Photo: private
Donal McLaughlin’s translations of books by Monica Cantieni and ArnoCamenisch are due this spring, as is his new short story collection, beheading the virgin mary & other stories (Dalkey Archive).
Franco Supino’s novel for young adults, Wasserstadt, is reviewed on NBG.
Katy Derbyshire:

There are two books that have been following me around this past year like Sandy the stray dog in Annie. They won’t go away and they’re adorable, but they stink to high heaven. The first is David Wagner’s Leben (‘Lives’). It’s neither fish nor flesh, not a novel and not a memoir, and it’s about a man who has a liver transplant. Wagner gives us funny stories of his fellow patients, horror stories of gushing fountains of blood, love stories, sex stories, fatigue stories, all packed together in a riveting but delicate narrative. There are even found poems made out of newspaper items on bizarre deaths. The book won last year’s big spring award, the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, and you should be able to find an extract I translated in an issue of Hamish Hamilton’s Five Dials magazine.

The other book is a big fat gutsy novel, Clemens Meyer’s Im Stein (‘In the Rock’). Meyer pulls out all the stops for a symphony of pimps and prostitutes in an East German city, from 1989 to the present day. Constantly changing perspectives from a cast worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, highly experimental writing coupled with homages to other authors, and all utterly convincing. Meyer focuses on one Godfatherlike character and on a city’s journey from a prostitution-free zone to a magnet for sex tourism. And he also gives a voice to all manner of women working in the sex industry, raising moral issues but not giving easy answers. NBG has a sample translation online.

Neither of these are cosy, heart-warming books. They’re emotionally challenging and extremely well written, and have been heaped with praise and prizes in Germany. They’re obvious choices, possibly, which is why I’m surprised no daring editors have picked them up and taken them home with them.
Katy Derbyshire Photo: private
Katy Derbyshire is currently translating Jan Brandt’s 927-page novel Gegen die Welt (‘Against the World’) for Seagull Books.
Lucy Renner Jones:

I am based in Berlin and know a lot of West Germans who have come to live here to be ‘creative’ and find jobs that break away from their parents’ post-war generation expectations. This group of friends are all in their midforties but we still tend to live as if we were 25-30 years old. You can drift and float in Berlin (in a positive and negative sense), which attracts a crowd of idealists. Thomas Melle’s novel Sickster, published by Rowohlt in 2011, touches on these themes. One of its characters, Magnus, still believing he is an idealist, drifts towards Berlin and becomes a freelance journalist (a ‘word whore’ in his own words) for a corporate magazine. At the same company, testosterone-fired Thorsten, who attended the same Jesuit school as Magnus, bolsters himself with power drinks and stiff spirits between PowerPoint presentations, while prowling the offices imagining women in pornographic poses. His girlfriend Laura, similarly well-heeled and disillusioned, gets through her days in a PR firm using breathing exercises on the toilet to control panic attacks and inflicting self-harm. The trajectories of these three central characters find a meeting point in a psychiatric clinic before a wholly unexpected ending. Melle was rightly longlisted for the German Book Prize for the book in 2011.

When I read Silke Scheuermann’s work for the first time, I realised I was reading something I had rarely found before in German: a collection of short stories that gripped me. One of her strongest works is a collection of short stories entitled Rich Girls (Schöffling & Co., 2006) that is both sensual and shocking at times. In each story Scheuermann creates a strong voice for her female protagonists, navigating the delicate territory of misunderstandings, compromises and desire in love and sex. Whether it’s Franziska, a young student, contriving to meet a married professor, or Lisa, a thirty-something on a disastrous blind date, or whether she’s writing about housesitting teenagers on their first forays into sex or the elderly Sofie who tries to compete with her husband’s obsession with meteorology, Scheuermann manages to produce a tension between what could be and what is in these relationships. The collection’s title, Rich Girls, suggests that these women come from advantaged backgrounds: it is exactly this difficult ground that Scheuermann chooses to describe. Not helped by privilege but hindered by it, these female characters are examples of what can go wrong in a genteel upbringing: they lack self-confidence, their fantasy worlds are not matched by reality, and they so badly want to believe in happy endings that they fail to see what’s ahead.
This spring, Lucy Renner Jones will be spending four weeks at Ledig House near New York translating the diaries of Brigitte Reimann (Ich bedaure nichts, ‘I Have No Regrets’). The book will be published by Seagull Books next year.
Steph Morris:

Already featured in NBG, Astrid Rosenfeld’s two novels remain my top tips, the best thing to land in my lap while working with NBG. Rosenfeld never risks boring the reader, and tells far-fetched tales so convincingly you believe – and enjoy – every word. Adams Erbe (‘Adam’s Legacy’) is a love story set in wartime Berlin and the Warsaw ghetto; Elsa ungeheuer (‘Elsa Forever’) begins with a dysfunctional, colourful childhood and ends as the young people are caught in the machinations of a dysfunctional, colourful art-world. It’s crazy that these books haven’t been bought by an English-language press yet.

Eva Baronsky’s Herr Mozart wacht auf (‘Mr Mozart Wakes Up’) catapults the composer into twenty-first century Vienna where he doesn’t know what’s hit him. Funny and excruciating, later touching and disturbing, finally heart-warming, the characters are firm, the plot tight, the scenes evocative, and it features Mozart. What more do you want? Aufbau, who publish it, pride themselves on nurturing the lost art of editing. I appreciate that.

So too Antje Kunstman, who published Kristof Magnusson’s Das war ich nicht (‘That Wasn’t Me’). Magnusson has imagination and humour; his banking meltdown novel was written before the current crisis kicked off, and includes a writer aghast at becoming legendary, and a translator in revolt. Luckily Elton John comes to the rescue.

Birgit Vanderbeke’s Das lässt sich ändern (‘We Can Change That’ or ‘Another World is Possible’) must be the most fluid German novel I’ve read. The current trend for omitting inverted commas around dialogue can backfire; in Vanderbeke’s hands it is effortless. She has been writing circular, stream of consciousness prose for decades and really knows what she’s doing. A tale of a man both down-to-earth and idealistic, the woman who sticks her neck out for him, and what they achieve: its message might be too hippy for some, but this old anarchist loved it.
Steph Morris Photo: Ebba D. Drolshagen
In autumn 2014, Steph Morris will be translator-inresidence at the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium (European Translators’ Centre), Straelen, North Rhine- Westphalia, Germany.