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Feature: Prizes

The German Book Prize:
Ten Years of Winners in Translation

A decade ago, a panel of writers and critics – accompanied and scrutinised by the media and reading public – took on the task of finding the ‘best’ new Germanlanguage novel of the year. Between March and October, they narrowed down 150 submissions from publishers in Austria, Germany and Switzerland to a longlist of twenty, then a shortlist of six, and finally to a single book: Arno Geiger’s Es geht uns gut, a multi-generational saga that journeys into Austrian history through the memories embedded in an inherited house. Praising the novel for its ‘balance between the transitory and actual moment, the historic and the private, between holding on and forgetting’, the organisers of the German Book Prize presented their first winner with twenty-five thousand Euros at the inaugural ceremony in Frankfurt. The panel’s choice was welcomed by critics and the media, and the readership for Geiger’s work expanded dramatically overnight. Es geht uns gut – a reference to the years when the Austrian Post Office charged a reduced fee for postcards of fewer than six words – became an instant bestseller and has since appeared in sixteen languages: in French as Tout va bien and in English as We Are Doing Fine.

Ten years on, the German Book Prize is a major literary event and its winners have found recognition within and beyond the borders of the German-speaking world. For many of the commended writers, the prize marked the start of a journey into multiple languages. Here we take a look at their travels.
Author Melinda Nadja Abonji
Claus Setzer

Melinda Nadj Abonji has the distinction of winning the German Book Prize and the Swiss Book Prize for the same novel in 2010. Born into the Hungarian-speaking minority in the Vojvodina (now Serbia), Nadj Abonji moved to Switzerland at the age of five and writes in German. Her winning novel Tauben fliegen auf is a semi-autobiographical account of an immigrant family living outside of Zurich. Translated into nineteen languages, it was published in English as Fly Away, Pigeon. Nadj Abonji was a guest writer at the Festival Neue Literatur in New York last year.
For a week in September 2009, the translators’ centre in Straelen was occupied by Uwe Tellkamp and translators from around the world working on his German Book Prize-winning novel from the previous year. Der Turm poses numerous translation challenges, including regional dialect, medical vocabulary, military jargon and details from the fabric of East German life. His English-language translator Mike Mitchell started work much later: it took the innovative publishing strategy of digital-only Frisch & Co. to get the thousand-page English-language edition underway, and Penguin joined in last year to produce a print version of The Tower in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the wall.
Kathrin Schmidt’s Du stirbst nicht was awarded the German Book Prize in 2009, the year in which Herta Müller’s Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel) also featured on the shortlist. Published in nine languages but still awaiting translation into English, Schmidt’s remarkable novel describes a woman rebuilding her life and her vocabulary after suffering a stroke. The title translates as ‘You’re Not Going to Die’.
Julia Franck won the German Book Prize in 2007 for Die Mittagsfrau, now available in thirty-six languages. For British translator Anthea Bell, the novel was only the start of an engagement with Franck’s work, leading to two further translations so far – most recently, West. Her renderings of Franck’s work have been nominated for numerous awards including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the IMPAC. Last year a short story by Franck became the basis for a different type of translation award: the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, for which ‘Der Hausfreund’ was chosen as the competition text. The winning version – ‘The Family Friend’, translated by Eleanor Collins – was selected from over two hundred entries and can be read online at Granta.

The trajectory of Julia Franck’s work exemplifies perfectly how the German Book Prize can set books and authors off on travels around the world. Ten years in, it has found an established place in the international publishing scene, and the the next winner will be announced on 12 October to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair. Extracts in English from the six shortlisted books will be published in advance on the NBG website, where you can also find details of past winners and nominees.

Sally-Ann Spencer is a literary translator and translation researcher.

Arno Geiger’s subsequent book, an exploration of his father’s Alzheimer’s, will soon be available to readers in twenty-four languages, with an English-language edition in preparation.

Winning Novels
and their English-language Translations
2014 Lutz Seiler, Kruso (Suhrkamp) – English-language translation forthcoming (Scribe)
2013 Terézia Mora, Das Ungeheuer (Luchterhand)
2012 Ursula Krechel, Landgericht (Jung und Jung)
Eugen Ruge, In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (Rowohlt) – In Times of Fading Light (Faber/Graywolf, 2013, tr. Anthea Bell)
2010 Melinda Nadj Abonji, Tauben fliegen auf (Jung und Jung) – Fly Away, Pigeon (Seagull Books, 2014, tr. Tess Lewis)
2009 Kathrin Schmidt, Du stirbst nicht (Kiepenheuer & Witsch)
2008 Uwe Tellkamp, Der Turm (Kiepenheuer & Witsch) – The Tower (Frisch & Co./ Penguin, 2014, tr. Mike Mitchell)
2007 Julia Franck, Die Mittagsfrau (Fischer) – The Blind Side of the Heart/The Blindness of the Heart (Harvill Secker 2009/Grove 2010, tr. Anthea Bell)
2006 Katharina Hacker, Die Habenichtse (Suhrkamp) – The Have-Nots (Europa, 2008, tr. Helen Atkins)
2005 Arno Geiger, Es geht uns gut (Hanser) – We Are Doing Fine (Ariadne Press, 2011, tr. M. Poglitsch-Bauer)