Monday, 6 August 2018

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, tr. Ros Schwartz




Here is something like a translation memoir, the story of Mireille Gansel’s multiple and changing relationships to various languages and to the act of translation. The author begins, in delicate prose, with stories of Hungarian and German in her French childhood. Gansel comes from a Jewish mitteleuropäische family spread across exiles in Europe and Israel, who speak Hungarian (which she does not understand as a child, but loves to hear her father translate aloud) and the German of the pre-Nazi Austro-Hungarian empire. She writes beautifully about the inflections of Czech, Yiddish and Hebrew in her relatives’ accents, their language as a relic of history. Her translator Ros Schwartz has given us a polished rendering, letting the author’s precise and considered voice shine through and always staying this side of kitsch, but I would have expected no less from her.

Gansel learns German at school and goes on to study it and eventually translate its poetry, but for her, language is a literary medium that has a deep association with the individuals who speak it. Transhumance means taking sheep from one pasture to another, but every time I read it the word human stands out – a productive misunderstanding. Writing about the poets she has translated, Gansel tells us very personal stories about them. How she discovered their work, what happened when they met (if they were still alive), what influenced them, the melodies of their verses and voices. Her repeated query is: How was I to translate this? Each writer necessitates a different approach. It seems almost to be a question of passing a poem between two human beings, and to do so Gansel seeks a close understanding of the work and its creator, spending time with them and then finding the fitting place to translate.

Gansel writes fascinatingly about her work in Vietnam on Vietnamese poetry, taking a new tack as bombs were falling during the 1970s. Her translator Ros Schwartz told me: “A good translation doesn’t colonise the work but preserves the joys and beauties of its ‘otherness’ without resorting to weird foreignization.” Gansel herself quotes the translator Nguyen Khac Vien’s guiding principle: “‘Staying faithful means first and foremost seeking to recreate the work’s humanity, its universality.’ An approach that meant liberation from all forms of exoticism, appropriation, and the cultural and spiritual annexation characteristic of the translations produced under colonisation.” She does just that, not only in her translations but in the way she thinks about poetry and people, moving directly from the Vietnamese To Huu’s lines on casuarina forests to Brecht’s thoughts on the near-criminality of talking about trees in difficult times – though conditions are very different in a country stripped of vegetation by Agent Orange.

To help her work on the texts of minority language-speakers in the Vietnamese mountains, she looks to field ethnology gathering spoken language in the Alps, “absorbing the rhythms and cadences of those words and voices, discovering an entire register of expressions, accents and constructions.” All this helps her to understand the nature of orality and form. People, I understand from her working method, are human wherever they are. That shepherding metaphor has at its heart a sense of less crossing but rather ignoring and defying boundaries. Over its long history, German has been spoken across shifting political borders and overlapping with other languages, as Gansel points out, making the notion of pinning language to nationality a fallacy.

That helps, I’m convinced, to reclaim German from its abuse by fascists, as Brecht did and as many exiled writers attempted, including Nelly Sachs, whom Gansel translated with great care. It’s hard for me to judge her work in this instance without understanding French; by necessity, the book uses various translators’ English renderings, which vary in effectiveness. But the questions she raises, of how to capture Sachs’s dense Hebrew-infused poetry, are fascinating. In the face of repeated right-wing calls for everyone living in Germany to adhere to an ill-defined Leitkultur, asserting a pluralist vision of German language, literature and culture is still a key task. The “German-speaking world” is a place where many languages are spoken, now too, and where those languages permeate each other to produce exciting writing, influenced far more widely than by any standard canon. Mireille Gansel reminds us that the world is more complex and wonderful than those who call for a single dominant national culture would have us believe.

That, and her lessons about taking great time and care over the human aspect of translation, will stay with me for a long time to come.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Sandra Hoffmann: Paula




PAULA is a strange, disturbing book. It refuses to sit firmly in any one category. In many ways, it’s a memoir. It’s made up largely of Sandra Hoffmann’s memories of her grandmother, the Paula of the title, and the silence that she spread across the family. Paula, a devout Catholic from rural southern Germany, had two illegitimate children. One died shortly after his birth; the other was Hoffmann’s mother. Paula refused to tell anyone who the father or fathers were.

It’s that silence, that yawning gap in the family’s history, that means the book isn’t quite a memoir. Over the years, Hoffmann has had to use fiction to imagine her own origins, the reason why she and her mother are darker-skinned than anyone else in the village.
Several times in my life, I’ve been thought Greek, Moroccan, Turkish, half-Indian, French or Italian. I’m still searching for the root that nurtures these assumptions. Where does my skin colour come from, my dark, wiry hair?
She has explored her possible origins in stories and a novel, Was ihm fehlen wird, wenn er tot ist. And in this book too, she resorts to her imagination to fill in the blank spots. The author refers to her book as a “narrative”; its editor calls it a “memoir”; it can be read as a novel and certainly has the beautiful language and carefully crafted structure of one. I know that Sandra Hoffmann wrote a much longer book and pared it down to a highly atmospheric 157 pages.

Paula left a collection of some 400 photos, which Hoffmann uses to beautiful effect as a narrative device. Again, though, these are real pictures, of real people – unidentified people. The narrator combs through them repeatedly, searching for men who might be her grandfather or someone her grandmother once loved, and for clues about the rest of her story. Meanwhile, we read about her increasingly oppressive life under one roof with Paula, and with parents who have abandoned curiosity in favour of a comfortable life. An understandable choice, and one that Hoffmann doesn’t condemn them for, although she clearly mourns it.

Interspersed with reflections from the present day, we learn more and more about Paula as the narrator gets older and her perspective alters. Her grandmother changes from a familiar, soothing presence, who teaches her to pray and protects her from her fears, to an infuriating disruption, refusing to respect her personal space and making her ill. And eventually, a woman who had a tough life and was shaped by it. The narrator pieces together a story for her grandmother out of snatches of conversation, stories told to her as a child, things her father tells her later. Yet there is no way to find out where she herself comes from. The conclusion, if there can be one, is that Sandra Hoffmann became a writer precisely because of that family silence, as a way to understand herself.

This is not, however, a purely therapeutic exercise. The book is a joy to read, thoughtful and precise and self-possessed, yet it always feels intimate. Hoffmann was influenced by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, but her book is all her own. It presents a number of exciting challenges for translators: natural use of Swabian dialect, capturing the oppressive tone of family life, getting the careful sentences right – and the central idea, that of Schweigen, which doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. I don’t want to jump the gun on that because Sandra Hoffmann will be our writer-in-residence at the BCLT Summer School in Norwich next week, and the participants will have the pleasure of finding solutions. I’m very much looking forward to it, and to the outcome. It feels to me like a book where translators will benefit hugely from direct conversation with the author.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Autumn 2018 Gender Stats

Hello there!

Just to let you know, I've updated my list of original German hardcover Belletristik (fiction, poetry, essays, and I think I included one collection of plays) in a selection of publishers' catalogues, counting up writers by gender. It is of course disheartening reading, with 54 books by women coming out at the same time as 90 written by men. That's 37.5% women, up half a percentage point from autumn 2016. As usual, genre fiction leans towards women, with dtv bringing out 7 female-authored and only 3 male-authored books this autumn, for instance. Literary fiction catalogues (Suhrkamp 2:10, Fischer 1:5, Diogenes 0:5, Hanser 1:4, KiWi 3:8, and so on) tend to do the opposite, heavily favouring men.

Here's something that certainly cheered me up, though: Hanser Berlin is publishing an anthology of women writing in German about sex and power, edited by Lina Muzur, on 23 July. Featuring Fatma Aydemir, Antonia Baum, Kristine Bilkau, Heike-Melba Fendel, Nora Gomringer, Annett Gröschner, Anna Katharina Hahn, Helene Hegemann, Margarita Iov, Mercedes Lauenstein, Juliane Liebert, Anna Prizkau, Annika Reich, Anke Stelling, Margarete Stokowski, Jackie Thomae and Julia Wolf. At least we have that.


Wednesday, 25 April 2018

What is a good translation?

I'm still thinking about how we define "good" in terms of literary translation. For the Seagull Books newsletter, I asked a whole lot of other translators their opinions, and wrote about why it matters, whether we can demand that reviewers understand, and how taste plays a role. You can read it here.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

On Appreciating Translations

As translators demand and gain increased recognition, our greater visibility has both pros and cons. It means that while some critics acknowledge our existence with a swift and not unwelcome "smoothly translated by" that might previously have been cut by an editor, others seek to engage with our work but in a negative way, pointing out its flaws. At which point other translators leap to our defence. This week, Emma Ramadan published the first part of a year-long diary at the Quarterly Conversation. Among other very interesting things, she addresses this issue, asking:
Why is it that anyone who dares write a negative review of a popular translation becomes a target? This is a problem. Or is it? Should we only positively review translations so that we lift the boat of translations in general? Should we all form a pact to refrain from reviewing translations we don’t like? Shouldn’t translations be able to stand up to the same criticism as books originally written in English?
For a while, I tried to organize a workshop bringing together critics (paid and unpaid) and translators, with the aim of talking about what makes a good translation, what makes a good review, and what makes a good review of a translation. I'm too far away from the UK, though, so it came to nothing. Maybe I'll try again some time. But for now, I'll gather my thoughts about it here.

I hope that translations are able to stand up to the same criticism as books originally written in English. Emma writes about abandoning a review because she disliked the book, and I know others who have done the same. In fact, back when I was reviewing books regularly here, unpaid, I usually chose not to bother finishing books I disliked – why prolong my misery and then write about it? (Part of this is probably because like many women, I want people to like me, I want to be nice.)

What I would also like, though, is for critics to deal fairly with translations, not treat them like country cousins. That would mean taking them seriously and making an attempt to critique different aspects: plot, style, language and translation. At the moment, critiquing the translator's work often takes one of two approaches, as I mentioned above: the single-adverb compliment – robustly, smoothly, adeptly, elegantly, etc. – and the find-the-flaw game, in which the reviewer points out misunderstandings and poor word choices. In her fascinating book on translation, This Little Art, Kate Briggs addresses this mistake-spotting with reference to two much-criticized (women) translators:
It has to be possible, in other words, for someone, for the critic, for the philosopher, for the harder-working translator, to identify and correct the translator's mistakes. Doing so can be a means of alerting readers to the fact of translation (...) and of preparing the ground for retranslation. It has to be possible to continue this inexhaustible work together: to query and vary each other's decisions, holding to or elaborating alternative measures of precision and care, without quarrelling, necessarily, or policing. And without shaming? This, it seems, is less clear.
My answer would be this: when we write about translations, we should bear in mind that they've been written by fallible human beings – as have all books. Translation is difficult. So is writing. It is hard to move a literary text between languages that don't overlap in terms of semantics, sounds, traditions. It is also hard to write descriptions of things that exist without words, thinks like sex, music, fields of daffodils. Literary criticism assesses how well those difficult things have been achieved.

I think I'm not alone in feeling that negative criticism of translators' work would be easier to stomach if it were accompanied by positive, in-depth appreciation of the occasions when we do well. On Twitter last week, I suggested a short list of positive attributes I look out for in translations, and others, including Frank Wynne – double-nominated for the Man Booker International Prize only hours later – added some more. Here are many of them:
Maintaining a rhythm
Creative word choices
Preserving oddities
Finding (new) ways to bring across cultural specifics
Playful approaches
(Re)creating a viable and distinct voice, authorial or character-driven
Taking chances, intervening more than usual
Recreating humour
Preserving a sense of place/period
Imaginatively dealing with dialect/slang, making them sound natural
Reproducing a sense of cadence
Using calque to good effect
Reproducing the uniqueness of a voice rather than smoothing it out
Recovering rare words
Maintaining linguistic resonances through consistent word choice
Preserving alliteration and aptonyms
I realize it's difficult to spot some of these things if you don't speak the original language and so can't compare, particularly with word choice issues. And I admit that not every translation has to tackle all these difficulties; some writing is simply smooth, so the translator's task is to render it smoothly. But I think we can pick up on many of these positive achievements regardless of our knowledge of the original. I'm currently judging an award for international literature translated into German, reading books translated from many different languages into a language that isn't my native tongue. I find myself quite capable of spotting in these translations both flaws – inconsistency, bumpy rhythm, unconvincing voices – and achievements – language patina, a sense of urgency, rescued humour, successfully solved linguistic sudoku.

And at our monthly translation lab in Berlin, we occasionally take the time to appreciate a specific translation. We compare it to the original and focus only on all its many positives, all the things we might emulate in our work. Sure, there are always things we might have done differently and it's hard to resist pointing them out. But I think if we only have negative role models, we end up aiming only for an impossible notion of flawlessness.

Kate Briggs has a gorgeous, reassuring parenthesis on page 86:
(If you don't want to make mistakes, don't do translations, I was once told – an enabling dictum that I keep close to my heart.)
So instead of pretending there can ever be a flawless translation, let's take translators seriously, celebrate what we do well and find ways to criticize without policing. When we review translated literature, let's aim to review all aspects of it. I'm a big fan of the translation reviews at the Glasgow Review of Books, by the way, because that's what they do.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Selim Özdogan: Wo noch Licht brennt

Having been thinking a lot about cronyism among critics, I have to start this review with a full disclosure: Selim Özdogan is a friend of mine and has been for about ten years. The friendship evolved through the first book in what became this three-part series, Die Tochter des Schmieds, when I was a pretty much unpublished translator trying hard to get a foot in the door. Next came Heimstrasse 52 and now we have the final part, Wo noch Licht brennt. Together, the three novels tell the life story of Gül, who grows up in 1950s Turkey in the first volume, comes to Germany to work in book two, and in the new novel grows old between the two countries.

In my past reviews (linked above) I wrote a lot about what these novels mean in political terms: finally giving a literary voice to the women of the Gastarbeiter generation who propped up the West German economy, emphasizing individual stories rather than religion, painting a three-dimensional portrait of a family. All that is still true of Wo noch Licht brennt but I found myself reading it differently. By now, I feel so familiar with Gül that the last part of her life story felt like a warm and welcoming chat, catching up with a friend after a long gap. There would be tea, and with Gül involved probably pastries. The TV might be on in the background but we'd ignore it, or maybe we'd end up talking about soaps.

At the start of the novel, Gül returns to Germany after attempting to retire to Turkey, only to find that her husband has been having an affair while she was away. The Turkish husband having an affair with a German woman is a bit of a trope in stories about Gastarbeiter, I presume because it happened a lot in real life. There are other things in the novel that ring true because we've heard about them before: Gül's difficulties with the German language, her feeling that the Germans are cold, her daughters' and grandchildren's lives being very different to her own. And then there are surprising individual moments: her friendship with a young criminal, her observations of drug use around her, the family back home suddenly arguing, a memorable dieting episode. Gül's husband Fuat is still around to provide wry comments and comic relief, and her daughters lead their own lives with their own ups and downs. We get a potted history of Turkish-German media habits, from five-mark pieces saved for telephone boxes to multiple mobile phones, from the one Turkish programme on German TV to satellite dishes to Facebook.

And of course the story is told from Gül's perspective, although not in the first person. It's the tone, perhaps, that makes the novel feel so personal. Gül reflects on life a great deal; she's not an educated woman and the language is simple and sometimes verging on kitsch, but the ideas are not. We follow Gül's moral dilemmas and feel with her; she feels destined to suffer because she lost her mother at a young age and became a kind of mother to her younger siblings. And she thinks about the nature of truth and how we all twist it. Özdogan uses a lot of sensual language and comparisons, and I was very pleased to find once again the repeated glimpses into the future that made the previous novels shine in terms of style. Like its predecessors, the book skips from one episode to the next, showing us small moments of tenderness, shock, pain and friendship. A life lived simply under complicated circumstances.

What Wo noch Licht brennt reminded me of, quite strongly at certain points, was Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. I hadn't read her work before the first two in the series, but I think they too fit the bill. Selim Özdogan tells the story of a woman's life in loving detail, revealing social changes as they affect her and showing us how she reacts to them. And he also draws us into that life, makes us almost part of the family, creates an addictive pull so that we have to find out what happens next to this woman, whose life is superficially unremarkable. I think this trilogy is a great achievement – as a fictional document of a group of people otherwise ignored by German writers, as a piece of fiction that calmly tells a gripping story, and as a warm and loving portrait of a strong woman, a great survivor.

I wish Anglophone readers will one day get an opportunity to read it. 

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

German Book Prize Longlist: Some Musings

The list of twenty titles in the running for the German Book Prize was announced yesterday. In the past, I've shadowed the prize quite closely. It is, after all, the German-language equivalent to the Man Booker, with a large PR budget. The prize makes people sit up and notice books, and those people include editors at foreign publishing houses. The majority of the winning titles have since been published in English, most recently Lutz Seiler's amazing Kruso, translated by Tess Lewis. So it's important for my work.

But. Amit Chaudhuri has a piece in today's Guardian about why the Booker is bad for writers. The idea is not a new one: choosing a "book of the year" focuses attention on one book at the expense of others and there are some who suggest it encourages writers to produce a certain kind of book. Chaudhuri criticizes the Booker system and also those who criticize the judges' choices, saying they "ritually add to its allure". So here I am, about to join Chaudhuri in ritually adding to the German Book Prize's allure.

Allow me a quick caveat before I begin: having done my own "jury service" for the International DUBLIN Literary Award, I understand that choices are made within a complex dynamic, partly due to time pressure. I'm not in favour of imposing quotas on longlists or shortlists, but I do think judges should be aware of the messages they send with their lists. I was proud of our Dublin shortlist; it was beautifully international, covered a wide range of styles and subjects, and the gender ratio mirrored that of the nominations. Yes, I counted – after the fact.

Let me move on to the German Book Prize longlist now. The award website offers brief descriptions of the nominated books, which is good because I've only read part of one of them; eight of them aren't published until next month. There is, however, a definite theme: men (writers, professors, occasionally more down-to-earth characters) who have reached a crossroads in their lives. A writer friend and I picked apart the list yesterday, lying on towels at the outside pool. We ended up doubled over with laughter... We counted nine of these beauties. Admittedly, neither of us has read any of them, and we suspected a couple of them might be playing with the trope in an amusing way. But nine out of twenty books being riffs on a similar theme still seems... a little samey.

What I've decided, then, is to look only at the novels on the list that interest me. It's my party over here and I get to make the guest list. I am flat out nonplussed by books about white men over forty breaking out of the mould to make life-changing decisions. But there are a few books I definitely do like the look of.

In alphabetical order, with links to information in English where available (and German where not):

Franzobel: Das Floss der Medusawhat happened on board the raft of the Medusa, as depicted in Géricault's 1819 painting? Could be an examination of racism, human nature, survival instincts...

Jakob Nolte: Schreckliche Gewalten – werwolves, feminist terrorism, 20th century: "a black rainbow of horror". What's not to be very curious about?


Kerstin Preiwuß: Nach Onkalo – almost falling into the dull trope, but this one's about a forty-year-old man left stranded when his mother dies and how he finds ways to survive.

Sven Regener: Wiener Strasse – this is the one all my non-literary friends are looking forward to. I'm hoping it will stand alone because it's part of a whole series of books revolving around Frank Lehmann, a hapless charmer of a character who stumbles through life in West Germany, this time in 1980s Kreuzberg. I translated a sample and loved every minute of it. The first sentence is eight words long; the next two and a half pages. And it's funny. I am biased but I'd like a UK publisher to pick it up, even though Berlin Blues didn't make much of a splash in 2004. Times have changed, UK publishers!

Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Außer sich – English world rights have already sold to Text Publishing, so you'll get to read this at some point. I know I'm looking forward to it hugely. Antisemitism, Soviet Union, migration, family history, gender identity. By a writer whose plays and whose work at the Gorki Theater I really admire. A shining star on this list.

Christine Wunnicke: Katie – how could I resist a book inadvertently named after me and set in 1870s London? Except I've had it on my shelves since the spring and haven't got round to it. I will now, and I suppose that's part of the point of the prize.

Well, would you look at that? The love german books shortlist of six is gender balanced, all by itself. The German Book Prize longlist is not – but take a look at publishers' catalogues for an instant idea of why. They bring out significantly more men than women on their German literary fiction lists, and that's reflected in all award longlists. Thankfully, women and men have started to question conditions in the bottleneck of creative writing schools. You can read their texts on the Merkur Blog, and some of them are horrifying.
My hope is that this feeder, the programmes that take in a majority of female students and turn out a majority of male debut novelists, will change. And that editors at German houses will pay a little more attention to who they're publishing, perhaps shift the focus from the late works of accomplished white men to more innovative people and projects.

To some extent, it's a coincidence that the German Book Prize longlist was announced on the same day as President Trump applied the term "very fine people" to white supremacists. In other ways, it's not. The German Book Prize reflects the state of German literary publishing, which reflects the German-speaking countries as a whole. Some exciting things are happening, some progressive ideas are coming to the fore, but all in a culture in which the middle-aged, middle-class white male experience is considered the norm and worthy of more attention.   

In his Guardian article, Chaudhuri writes:
I’m not saying that the Booker shouldn’t exist. I’m saying that it requires an alternative, and the alternative isn’t another prize. It has to do instead with writers reclaiming agency. The meaning of a writer’s work must be created, and argued for, by writers themselves, and not by some extraneous source of endorsement (...). (A)s in other walks of life under capitalism, there has been a loss of initiative among writers: a readiness to let others decide why their work is significant while they busy themselves at literary festivals (...). Only rarely is silence a useful riposte.
I think that's a good conclusion, and I take from it the following tentative plan: as time and life allow, I'm going to follow the novels on the longlist that interest me, and also draw attention to other exciting German books coming out this autumn. I agree that a prize nomination is not the only measure of excellence we have, and nor are sales figures or numbers of reviews or many of the factors editors consider when commissioning translations. Defining excellence, meanwhile, is an impossible task, just like translation. The kind I relish most.