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Cat Mountains. An extract from ‘Katzenberge’ by Sabrina Janesch

Every summer, the British Centre for Literary Translation holds a Summer School, bringing together aspiring and experienced translators from several languages for a week of intense and inspirational workshops, seminars and lectures. The focus of the school is the group translation of a text whose author joins the translators for the whole week. This year the German author was Sabrina Janesch, whose novel Katzenberge was reviewed last year in NBG. Here, Shaun Whiteside, who ran the German workshop, introduces the fine results of that lively week.

Does wheat grow tall or high? If it grows high, then what do you do with ‘high summer’? Are we going with ‘yards’ or ‘metres’? Does ‘St George’s Cathedral’ sound a bit, well, Anglican, for a church in Lviv? And what about those catfish – would an English-speaking reader have any idea what we were talking about? These were some of the more straightforward issues we pondered at this year’s BCLT Summer School at the University of East Anglia, when the German working group was joined – thanks to New Books in German – by the young German novelist Sabrina Janesch, author of the wonderful Katzenberge (Cat Hills or Cat Mountains? We settled for ‘mountains’ – they’re a real range in western Poland, with, as Bryn pointed out, their very own Wikipedia entry.)
We had eleven students this year, from undergraduates to academics, gifted amateurs and professional translators, and it made for a very lively, often very funny series of discussions. Sabrina generously joined in with enthusiasm, moving from group to group (we divided first into three, then into two groups), joining in the process with what looked like genuine fascination, and explaining as best she could what was meant by a ‘Blütenrispe’ (a cluster of blossoms, in this instance on a false acacia tree), or what the ‘Platz’ in front of a Polish-Ukrainian farmhouse might look like. Katzenberge is a family saga told on two time levels at once – Nele, a Polish-German girl, attends her grandfather’s funeral in western Poland, and is impelled to discover the truth about his life, in particular his origins in a village in the East, in the present-day Ukraine. The passage she chose for the workshop is perhaps a bit more upbeat than some other bits of the novel, and with a hint of magic realism about it.
So what particular challenges did the passage pose (leaving aside the question of pronunciation when we presented the translation in semi-dramatised form at the end of the Summer School)? In the end the major difficulties arose around the exotic and unfamiliar setting. Units of measurement and unfamiliar foodstuffs – for a few glorious moments we came close to rendering ‘meterlange geraucherte Welse und Zander’ as ‘ells of eels and perches of perch’, before settling for the rather more sober ‘yards of smoked catfish and pikeperch’. (In the process discovering the monstrous Wels Catfish, which is well worth Googling if you have a spare moment.) Did we want to risk overstressing the Biblical echoes of the birth in the story, by having the villagers ‘bearing gifts’ as they waded through the white acacia blossom? Would readers automatically know that ‘Janeczkowa’ was Janeczko’s wife? And ‘schnapps’ or brandy? We settled for ‘schnapps’, but ‘brandy’ had much to be said for it. And what of that ‘blutjunge Zigeunerin’ who magically blessed the birth? A difficult one: a word to suggest a girl on the cusp of womanhood. We settled in the end on ‘lass’, even though we were aware that it might carry incongruous suggestions of northern dialect.
Translation is usually a solitary process, and the opportunity to work intensely on a short text, in teams and with the author, is invaluable – you carry the voices with you for weeks afterwards. Sabrina seemed to have a great time – she’s mentioned the ‘inspired atmosphere’ at the Summer School, and her delight at hearing her text ‘become so incredibly alive’. It was a great week, I hope everyone enjoyed it, and I hope you enjoy our translation.

Grandfather said the place where he was born was surrounded by fields of wheat so tall that in the height of summer it could barely be seen. Only those who knew exactly what the tops of the beech trees in the middle of the village looked like could get through to it.
And that’s why the midwife was late, even though his mother had been in labour for more than twelve hours. Lula Timofjejew said later that she had set off from Rosalki in plenty of time, but that soon after leaving her village she had lost her way in a thicket of wheat and rye, and met a raven who pointed her in the wrong direction. In the end she had emerged, soaked in sweat and covered in wheat husks, not in Zdzary Wielkie but in Krawcze, where the curious clan of the Yellow Bellies lived. No one believed her, but even years later she still swore blind that the Yellow Bellies had waylaid her, forcing her to join in their celebrations and dance on the table.
Słwomir Janeczko stood outside the kitchen window and listened to the piercing cries of his wife from the bedroom. Old Romanyszyn’s wife was with her, and together they had hauled the kitchen table into the bedroom and heaved Bogdana onto it. As soon as Romanyszyn’s wife had placed a wad of cloth between Bogdana’s teeth and pushed her skirts up, Słwomir Janeczko had gone outside. Beside him, on the garden bench, sat his first-born son, Leszek, who was picking his nose as he strained to hear the cries coming from the bedroom. His father fixed his gaze on the acacias that bordered the well and the entrance to the cellar. Their branches had become so full that they almost touched the eaves. Sławomir Janeczko remembered his own grandfather once telling him that when he was a boy the acacias had been so small that they were barely taller than he was.
They had blossomed particularly late that year: it had been a cold spring with snow-storms well into April. The farmyard was strewn with white sprigs of acacia; relatives and neighbours who had come with gifts to marvel at the newborn child waded ankle-deep through white blossoms. But the baby kept them waiting.
Hour upon hour went by without anything happening, without anyone coming out of the house to say, ‘The child is born,’ or ‘Go home, everyone, and put on your mourning clothes.’ The first of the visitors had appeared early in the morning once word went round that Janeczko’s wife was in labour. And by now it was long past noon. Some of the villagers had sat down in the nearby meadow and were starting to feast on the gifts they had brought: loaves as big as cartwheels and yards of smoked catfish and pikeperch.
When they saw Słwomir Janeczko sitting on the bench they waved him over to join them in the meadow. He pretended not to understand and instead paced anxiously up and down the yard. Only Kovalczuk took pity on him: he brought him a glass of schnapps, patted him on the shoulder and went back to the villagers, who had by now produced an accordion and were singing songs, some Ukrainian, some Polish. They had chosen a spot where they could clearly be seen from the bench. They didn’t want him to forget who had turned up to pay their respects to his second-born son. After all, he owned most of the surrounding fields: get on his good side, and he would let you grow turnips or potatoes in one, maybe two, of his fields without asking anything in return, and that was worth losing a day’s work for.
However, no one in Zdzary Wielkie had really believed that Janeczko’s wife, whose hair was already heavily streaked with grey, would make it through a second birth. In their hearts they had said their goodbyes weeks before, sure that she would die together with the child. There had already been complications with the birth of her first son, Leszek, two years before, and for two whole days and nights Bogdana Janeczko’s wails had echoed around the village, robbing them of their sleep. When, on the evening of the second day, Mihail Kovalczuk, the blacksmith, told his wife Hanka he was going to fetch his gun and go over there, she gave him such an earful that they didn’t even notice when Bogdana’s cries finally fell silent and Leszek was born.
In the days before Stanisłw’s birth, when Bogdana had realised how often the women of the village were dropping by, she threw them and their gifts out, yelling that such behaviour was the surest way to bring the devil and all his flea-ridden henchmen into the house.
Taras Romanyszyn, the oldest Ukrainian in the village and also the producer of its strongest plum schnapps, would later proclaim that the birth of Stanisłw Janeczko was a miracle and that, as proof of their God-fearing ways, all the villagers should make a pilgrimage to the icon of Saint George’s Cathedral in Lviv, preferably on their knees.
In response, the priest of Zdzary Wielkie, Marian Strzelnicki, let it be known that if it really was a miracle then it was a Catholic one, and that if Taras Romanyszyn wanted to mark the happy occasion he might more usefully contribute a few jugs of plum schnapps rather than a load of sanctimonious drivel which was in any case utterly misguided.
Most of the villagers paid no heed to either Romanyszyn or Strzelnicki because they knew the real reason why the birth had turned out well: it was the lingering magic of the gypsies, who had passed through Zdzary Wielkie just months before and been allowed to pitch their tents on Janeczko’s field. Everyone had seen that gypsy lass standing in front of Janeczko’s house, peeing in a high arc. And that was what had spared Bogdana and Stanisłw Janeczko from dying in childbed, that and nothing else. Grandfather said being born late at night in a village like that, particularly with the wind from the Galician steppes blowing pollen and dust into people’s faces, was bound to lead to bloody-mindedness. Fate might easily have intended for him to be born in Lviv or Krakow, in Kiev or Warsaw, but his unborn spirit only consented to become flesh when it happened upon Zdzary Wielkie: the village on the River Bug, where childhood was all about teaching frogs to talk and hiding in the forked branches of trees in autumn, lying in wait for the king of the foxes and then pelting him with a shower of walnuts. Tasks that elsewhere demanded sweat and toil seemed to take care of themselves in this place, for no sooner had the seeds been sown than they started growing at such a rate that the villagers found it impossible to store the entire harvest in their barns, and had to take much of it to the markets in the larger towns.
The earth: so rich and plump, almost good enough to eat. There were mushrooms in the woods so large that anyone able to harvest them from the loamy soil could carry them home over their shoulders like an umbrella. Then the people: they too were tall, their hair the colour of the wheat that grew in their endless fields. And even though they were rural folk, they had a strong sense of language and culture. This was no wonder: while thousands of people of different backgrounds were scattered across hundreds of streets in the cities without ever having spoken to each other, in Zdzary Wielkie Poles and Ukrainians lived together in close proximity and spoke both languages. The only things to fear were the spirits of cold who throughout those six long months of winter would rattle on the doors and windows, demanding to be let in. And wherever those spirits spied a gap in a roof or gate, they told their allies, the wolves and the bears.
Grandfather said, all the deliberations must have taken place before his birth – how else could you explain his feelings of familiarity, in his earliest years, with places he had never been to? – that had in the end led to him being born in Zdzary Wielkie and nowhere else. Of course it was the soil that he would live on that he chose, rather than the family he was born into. But as soon as he took his first steps towards that field of sunflowers, he knew he had come into the world in exactly the right place.
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The Summer School group, with Sabrina Janesch.
From left to right: Elizabeth, Bryn, Sabrina, Bradley, Chenxin, Laura C, Laura W, Peter, Shaun, Jamie, Rebekah, Emma, Barbara
Janesch’s novel Katzenberge is published by Aufbau Verlag.