28 May 2010

german language difficult language - how is it that so few german novels get translated?

yesterday night i attend a panel discussion on the very broad topic of german translations at the literaturwerkstatt berlin. i'll do my best to give you a quick roundup here.

the discussants were katy derbyshire, who is a professional tranlsator, tilman rammstedt, who won the bachmannpreis 2008 and made this awesome video about his winning story Der Kaiser von China, helge malchow, who is the CEO at publishing house kiepenheuer & witsch (he brought along hist best mate maxim biller), and hans-ulrich treichel who is one of the three heads of the deutsche literaturinstitut leipzig (DLL) and a rather famous author in his own right. moderated by literary critic hubert winkels, who is part of the bachmannpreis 2010 jury, the panel tried to answer the question why so few german publications penetrate the international book market. this question was not answered, of course, but the discussion was still interesting to follow.

malchow explained that the cultural eradication and deprivation during and after the second world war might have caused a backlog with the german people that ultimately led to a great openness regarding all sorts of art and literature. after all, malchow estimated, 50% of KiWi's programme are made up of works written by foreign authors. if it's so easy for them to get published here, why are not half of all published books on foreign markets authored by germans?

certainly not because writers like rammstedt, whose novel has been translated into "six or seven" languages, come to the conclusion that, apart from accompanying commercial aspects, translations "aren't desirable". and probably not because as katy suggested, "german books that aren't about nazis or secret agents just don't interest foreign publishers". they aren't interested, because the limited horizon of our younger authors, as paraphrased by treichel, does not allow for what malchow was looking for in new voices, originality and life experience. (that's what they always say, isn't it, until someone like helene hegemann turns up!) "our authors come to DLL right from school", treichel said, "they shouldn't worry about the literary industry. and anyway, as yet not one newbie has come to me with the desire to be well-known internationally". wow, i thought, these are surprising points from someone dandling one of the largest cradles of german literary talent! only very few people my age that i know have something i would call a locally limited horizon, and most of us put great effort into building international careers. we are interested in many things, and - if i may say so - a far cry from the ethno-centric mindset that might have shaped the thinking of today's average sixty year old.

the assumptions that newer german literature has nothing say just cannot be true. instead, publishers' decisions are influenced by different factors, a kind that, sadly, my generation knows all too well: soft skills and networking! (at this point, bachmannpreis nominee dorothee elmiger taps me on the shoulder, asking whether she could take a look at my event programme? uhm, sure.)

often times translators themselves suggest books they like to their editors, making costly assessment reports redundant for publishers. or it is one particular book that opens a market, like umberto eco's The Name of the Rose that paved the way into the world market for other works of italian fiction.

today, even for internationally established german writers the going is rough: handke, for example, sells only 4.000 novels a year in the US, and these are likely to be the ones that belong to universities and public libraries, malchow assumes. he explains how it is next to impossible to establish accomplished younger writers like christian kracht overseas - not to mention newcomers.

treichel says he once heard people say a book needed to literally travel in order for it to become interesting for the international market (this made me think of crammed and dusty second hand traveller's book stores in south east asia), but we germans "aren't writing to entertain people", after all.

which brings right up the question that i have been asking myself all along: why is no one talking content? katy tried, of course - but has it never occurred to anyone that the world might just not be interested in our often sprawling, precocious content? is intellectualism un-dress up-able?

at least in the US, the number of european translations declines steadily. quite possibly, this has to do at least partly with the global tendency to buy, and thus publish, fewer books. readers nowadays are very likely to gather whatever they're interested in from the internet - aided by services like google books, initiatives like Bachmann Goes Europe and blogs like mine that target culturally interested people across borders (even though my content is berlin-heavy admittedly). also, we must not forget that while the US population is almost four times bigger than ours and therefore should haveat least the same quota of published writers we do, the US already in 2005 only published less than double the number of books than germany did in 2007 (source). [more evidence on my musings here.]

as you can see, the matter is complicated... and who's going to translate this article into german now?

5 comments:

kjd said...

What I'm most annoyed about after the fact is that nobody said, "It's not our fault." Because the problem's at the other end and no amount of soul-searching and blame-apportioning over here will change it. German is number three for the number of translations in the US, after Spanish and French, both languages with a huge geographical range through their colonial histories.

So it's actually doing OK in relative terms.

annina said...

Yeah, I agree... But Germany's had problems with telling people how not to live before, I guess. Also I guess the opinion is that we should first "swipe our own floors", haha. As we learned from Treichel's rather sexist text: "Im Garten müßte einmal Staub gewischt werden." ... So that makes it difficult.

Jan Groh said...

What a nice comment on Treichel... ;-D

annina said...

Thanks, Jan! :)

SUMMA POLITICO said...

Since the name Handke appears, here is a host of links to material and discussions about him:MAY 2010 STATUS

- Hide quoted text -
LINK OF LYNXES TO MOST HANDKE MATERIAL
AND BLOGS ON THE WEB:

http://www.handke.scriptmania.com/favorite_links_1.html

http://www.handke-nobel.scriptmania.com/

http://handke-discussion.blogspot.com/

http://handke--revista-of-reviews.blogspot.com/

http://handke-watch.blogspot.com/
- Hide quoted text -


HANDKE LINKS + BLOGS SCRIPTMANIA PROJECT MAIN SITE:

http://www.handke.scriptmania.com/index.html
-
and sub-sites
e.g.

http://www.handkedrama.scriptmania.com/index.html

http://www.handkedrama2.scriptmania.com/index.html

http://www.handkedrama3.scriptmania.com/index.html

http://handke-drama.blogspot.com/


http://www.handkeromance.scriptmania.com/index.html

http://www.handkelectures.freeservers.com/index.html

http://www.handkescholar.scriptmania.com/index.htlm

http://www.handkebild.scriptmania.com/index.htlm

http://handke-photo.scriptmania.com/index.htlm

http://www.handke-nobel.scriptmania.com/index.html

http://www.handkeprose.scriptmania.com/

http://www.handkeprose2.scriptmania.com/index.html

http://www.handkefilm.scriptmania.com/index.html

http://handke-discussion.blogspot.com/
the American Scholar caused controversy about Handke, reviews, detailed of Coury/ Pilipp's THE WORKS OF PETER HANDKE, the psycho-biological monograph/ a note on Velica Hoca/ open letter to Robert Silvers + NYRB re: JS Marcus..

http://handke--revista-of-reviews.blogspot.com/

http://handke-yugo.blogspot.com/

http://handke-trivia.blogspot.com/
[moravian nights discussion, etc]

the newest:
http://handke-photo.scriptmania.com/
bpth have the psychoanalytic monograph
http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/

http://www.handkelectures.freeservers.com/index.html
[the drama lecture]
- Hide quoted text -

http://www.van.at/see/mike/index.htm

[dem handke auf die schliche/besuch auf dem Moenchsberg, a book of mine about Handke]

http://begleitschreiben.twoday.net/topics/Peter+Handke/


With three photo albums, to wit:

http://picasaweb.google.com/mikerol

http://picasaweb.google.com/mikerol/HANDKE3ONLINE#

http://picasaweb.google.com/mikerol/HANDKE2ONLINE#

http://picasaweb.google.com/mikerol/POSTED?authkey=YeKkFSE3-Js#

http://www.handke-trivia.blogspot.com

1] http://handke-yugo.blogspot.com/2010/05/links-page-for-pages-of-this-blog.html

http://www.artscritic.blogspot.com
- Hide quoted text -

[some handke material, too, the Milosevic controversy summarized]

http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/
http://www.facebook.com/mike.roloff1?ref=name
Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society
This LYNX will LEAP you to my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS:
http://www.roloff.freehosting.net/index.html
"MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS! +
THE FIREPLUG OF FILIALITY REINSURE YOUR BUNGHOLE!" {J. Joyce}
"Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben]
"Siena me fe, disfescimi Maremma." [Dante]
"Ennui [Lange Weile] is the dreambird that
hatches the egg of
experience."
[Walter Benjamin, the essay on Leskov.]