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I had intended to write this post as a translation duel but decided I would have to quote full poems and their translations to do it properly.  I don’t think Rilke would mind but the translators might be upset me quoting their copyright translations in full (particularly when I wax less than lyrical).

It would appear that since the inaugural German Literature Month during which Emma passionately advocated her admiration of Rilke the man, I, who had never read him, have been collecting modern English translations.

All three have one thing in common.  They all present the translation in parallel to the original poem. I like that. I can appreciate Rilke in his own words, admire just how beautiful German can be (a revelation at times) and admire the solutions that the various translators have conjured. I’m sure I would admire them more if I could appreciate metre, but I’m afraid I’m metre-deaf.  Still I can understand allusion, simile, metaphor and meaning, so all is not lost.

Two of the volumes are collaborations: The Oxford volume (two Rilke experts: Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland) and the Essential Rilke (Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer Prize winning, non-German speaking poet and Hannah Liebmann, a native German speaker).  In Pure Contradiction, Ian Crockatt, a Scottish crofter, translator of Old Norse skaldic poetry and poet in his own right, flies solo.  His critically acclaimed translation won the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize.

There is an extensive introduction in each book with explanations on how the translators approached the task and their objectives.  These introductions serve as excellent references to what makes Rilke so difficult to translate: his purposed vagueness, his subversion of German formations, his casting of several stanzas into one sentence. It’s no wonder that there are so many translations of his work, or that the results are so different from one another.

The results depend upon the translator’s ethic.  Whether they wished to create a translation as true to Rilke as possible (Kinnell/Liebmann) or wished to create a modern English alternative (Crockatt).  Not that Crockatt makes that claim; that’s how I read them.  Given that I abandoned the Ranson/Sutherland volume for adding flourishes and meanings that I didn’t see in the original, often to preserve the metre, Crockatt’s translations didn’t sit well with me.  The final straw was his translation of Leda.

Als ihn der Gott in seiner Not betrat,
erschrak er fast, den Schwan so schön zu finden;
er ließ sich ganz verwirrt in ihm verschwinden.
Schon aber trug ihn sein Betrug zur Tat,

bevor er noch des unerprobten Seins
Gefühle prüfte. Und die Aufgetane
erkannte schon den Kommenden im Schwane
und wußte schon er bat um Eins,

das sie, verwirrt in ihrem Widerstand,
nicht mehr verbergen konnte. Er kam nieder
und halsend durch die immer schwächre Hand

ließ sich der Gott in die Geliebte los.
Dann erst empfand er glücklich sein Gefieder
und wurde wirklich Schwan in ihrem Schoß.

Now we know that this describes the rape of Leda by Zeus.  Yet Rilke choses not to portray the event in an explicitly violent way. He could have; the German words existed. Yet Crockatt’s poem reads like an x-rated movie.  (And thus do his sales figures soar.) A non-German speaking reader appreciates his translation more than me.  In this particular case I dispute his claim that “Where I have created some new metaphor,or taken a direction he (Rilke) does not take, it is to bring to life and clarity the apparent significance of the poetry for 21st century English language readers, not to deliberately replace or distort his thought or expression”. Nor did I find this an isolated case.

I much prefer the Kinnell/Liebmann collaboration; the collection where the final translations were shaped by a non-German speaking poet. They are more literal; hence more accurate.  Yet they preserve the imagery, subtlety and grace of the originals.  Why mess with the master?

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Translated by Anthea Bell

West is an early novel by Julia Franck, published in 2003, even if only released in English last month.  I’m always a bit nervous when this happens.  Can the early work live up to the one that hooked me to an author in the first place?   In Franck’s case Blind Side of the Heart was the deal-clincher.  Quick answer to the question regarding expectations: not quite, but this book is so much better, and subtler, than last year’s release: Back to Back.

Nelly Senff is escaping to the West.  An organic scientist, she applied for her exit visa after the death of her lover and father of her children.  In the East, this was a automatic trigger to remove her from her profession and force her to eke a living through a menial set of jobs.  Nelly though sticks with her decision and finally obtains her exit permit. The novel opens as she is being driven to the border to make the crossing.

The Stasi aren’t finished with her yet.  There are still a few hours left for them to play with her … (She must leave by midnight, and, unfortunately,  she’s left a bit early.). What follows during the pages of chapter 1 is shocking. Be warned.  Though as reprehensible as the actions of the Stasi are, I found myself even more shocked by Nelly’s passivity. Yes, I understand her wish not to jeopardise her desired outcome.  Nevertheless there was something disconcerting about it.

It’s not until she reaches the other side and is again detained for questioning by the CIA that we find out that there are questions relating to the death of her lover.  Her Russian lover, who was suspected of being a spy by the East, is suspected of the same by the West.  But he’s dead, isn’t he?  Nelly, who was denied access to his body, can’t really confirm this.

She finds herself stuck in the limbo of the transit camp, Marienfelde, where life proves to be far from the liberating experience hoped for. Firstly, she has to negotiate the attentions of the western Secret Services (in official and less than official capacities) then the less than satisfying conditions in the camp, followed by the humiliations and condescensions meted out to refugees, whether this be the paucity of funds or the at times extreme bullying of her children at school.  It’s stressful for her,  and not at all a good advert for the FDR.

Not that difficulty is confined to Nelly.  Krystyna Jablonovska has fled with her crabbit (good Scottish word that) father in search of decent medical treatment for her brother.  Hans Pischke, a creepy little man, if I may say so, also finds himself stuck in the camp.  He’s the only man who does not seemed beguiled by Nelly’s charms, yet he is the one with whom she develops the nearest thing to friendship.  It doesn’t help her case that he is suspected of being a Stasi plant …. Krystyna and Hans’s stories are told from their own point of view.  So too is that of John Bird, one of the CIA officers who interrogate Nelly as  she crosses the border. He turns out to be a CIA officer with a conscience, with additional reasons for his own unhappiness. John Bird’s story provides a necessary balance in the narrtive. Franck shows that it was the political divide wreaked havoc on all, not just the select few.

And yet, I remained as distant as Nelly to the other characters.  Something doesn’t quite gel.  A bit like that yellow dress and blue sandals that Nelly is wearing on the book jacket. It’s only when I contemplate Nelly as a woman in shock, driven to the edges of sanity by both Germanies, that the pieces of the jigsaw begin to fit.


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Translated by Tim Mohr

There is a pattern developing to my #germanlitmonth reading.  This is the third novel in a row that takes me back to Hessen, where I lived for 8 years.    1) Goetheruh in which the main protagonist commutes between Weimar and Frankfurt am Main  2) Big Bad Wolf – Set on the surrounding areas of Frankfurt 3) Bronsky’s latest which starts in Berlin but migrates to Einhausen near Darmstadt. Is there a subliminal message being sent that I need to go back?  No – nothing subliminal about it.  All I need is … (Let’s not start that conversation here.)

Not that Einhausen fares particularly well in Bronsky’s novel, in comparison to Berlin:

i stood before a gray box that was mostly hidden behind a meter-high hedgerow that smelled like cough syrup … The place was a nightmare in concrete. After all those years in our historic landmarked building, I wasn’t prepared for this.

Then again, Einhausen is described through the eyes of a majorly disaffected teenager.  You know how teenagers get so hung up on their looks?  Well, Marek has reasons for that. Following a Rottweiler attack, his face is badly disfigured. The title of the book stems from this incident.

I didn’t step between you and the animal because I was unbelievable chivalrous.  You can call me a superhero for all I care, but just bear in mind that I never was one … it was first and foremost a reflex, and secondly an accident …..

The formerly handsome, confident boy retreats behind his sunglasses, confines himself to barracks and nurses the chip on his shoulder. When we meet him, the psychological disfigurement is uglier than the physical. 

His mother, who he calls by her first name, Claudia (I hate that), persuades him to attend a self-help group for cripples. (Marek’s vocabulary is uncompromising – it is an indicator of his self-disgust.) The group is attended amongst others by a blind person, someone suffering from a mysterious chronic illness, and a beautiful girl in a wheelchair, with whom Marek falls in love. It is led by a guru, who is anything but. 

The lessons to be learned are clear.  There is still value and worth in a person who is disabled.  There is more to a person than looks.  Real friendships are possible but a person must possess some nobility of character. That may seem obvious but this is Marek’s bildungsroman and for an adolescent with a ravaged face, those are lessons that are going to take some learning.

Bronsky is a quirky and un-PC writer and it may be the bluntness of Marek’s narrative and the black humour in association with disabililty that sits uncomfortably with some reviewers.  It did with me for a while but then, knowing the self-absorption, jaundice and bitterness that can infect a chronically-ill teenager, and the impact that has on the rest of the family, I decided that there was more truth to Bronsky’s tale than not.  Humour is not a sugar coating.  It’s a survival mechanism.  And when Claudia finally snapped, I applauded.

“Don’t talk to me about your face,” said Claudia, “I know it is a lot better than you at this point.”

To be frank, the novel’s not always in the best possible taste, and it is packed with some mighty screwed-up folk.  Nevertheless, in an object lesson for Marek, Bronsky leads the way in stripping back surface layers to reveal the deeper psychological truths below.


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Translated by Steven T Murray

All it takes is one brilliant idea.  Nele Neuhaus had her lightbulb moment when she decided that Snow White Must Die.  That novel won Neuhaus a new readership, became her first to be translated into English, and those who thoroughly enjoyed it couldn’t wait to pick up Big Bad Wolf.  Include me in those numbers.

The big is missing from the German title, Böser Wolf, and from the literally translated American, Bad Wolf.  So it’s an addition to the English title but it is an improvement.  It has a better ring; it preserves the fairy tale connection, and it enhances the threat and menace.  The big bad wolf is the stuff of nightmares and so are the contents of this book.

The starting point, Neuhaus revealed at her recent Bloody Scotland event, was a still unsolved case.  The body of a young teenage girl was pulled out the River Main. Her corpse told a story of long term violent and sexual abuse.  No one came to claim the body and she has yet to be identifed. How can such a thing happen?  Big Bad Wolf is Neuhaus’s exploratory answer to that question.

Nele Neuhaus at Bloody Scotland

It’s a long answer – a sprawling multi-stranded affair involving unscrupulous people doing unspeakable things to children.  Thankfully not described in graphic detail, although Neuhaus does not flinch from describing the torture inflicted on the adults who suspect the existence of and begin to investigate the paedophile ring. That is sickening enough.  She does, however, more subtly describe the effects of child sexual abuse in a domestic setting and the impact on both the victim and the unsuspecting parents.

The subject matter made this a difficult book to write, said Neuhaus, and I found it a difficult book to read for the same reason. Ultimately though, Neuhaus knows her trade, paces the novel well, and brings the many strands together in a fast-moving, if, at times, unfeasible climax.  (I had the same issue with Snow White Must Die, though I must admit both novels would make excellent TV.)

Whether the ending is satisfactory, depends on acceptance of the deep chill in the final sentence …. 



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There’s nothing to beat being in a place you love.  When that can’t be, reading a novel set in a place you love is an acceptable substitute – and that’s exactly the role that Bernd Köstering’s crime trilogy set in Weimar will play in the next few months.  Crime?  In Weimar – that bastion of German culture and refinement? Yes, indeedy.  A particularly heinous crime, I may add.  Someone is stealing treasured artefacts from Goethe’s house in the Frauenplan.


The Goethehaus on the Frauenplan


Not the showy pieces – items that wouldn’t be missed by the casual visitor.  Nevertheless the experts pick up on the crime immediately. There are no clues on site, suggesting that the thief is well aware of the security gaps. And he can strike with impunity .. He graduates from Goethe’s main house to his summer house (pictured on the book jacket).  Items even go missing from the Goethe Museum in Frankfurt on Main.  As his confidence grows, so does the size of the items he pilfers. Cue panic in officialdom.  This story must not hit the press before the crime is resolved.  It’s 1999  and Weimar is the European City of Culture.  A city’s reputation and the nation’s heritage is at stake.

The criminal, however, sends clues in the form of quotes from Goethe’s oeuvre.  The mayor calls in a professor and renowned  Goethe expert Hendrik Wilmut to unravel the puzzle.  What follows is not just a promenade through the city of Weimar but also through the life, friendships, enmities and works of the city’s most famous inhabitant.  Wilmut develops the theory that the thief believes himself to be Goethe reincarnated and that helps him close in.  As he does, however, the game changes.  A quotation from Goethe’s very sinister Erl-King heralds an abduction.  Suddenly it’s a matter of life and death.

The chase leads us through the landmarks of the city, 

from the White Swan restaurant, literally next door to Goethe’s house, where the investigating team meet for some very cozy lunches 

The White Swan

via the church of Saint Peter and Paul, where Herder, Goethe’s onetime friend and mentor, preached



to the dramatic finale in the Fürstengruft, where Goethe lies next to Schiller.

The final resting place

The identity of the criminal isn’t particularly difficult to spot – given the obvious mental issues involved.  Neither is the writing  sparkling (though that might be because this was the first novel I’ve read in German for 20 years).  It was a case of location, location, location for me.  Everywhere Wilmut went, every restaurant, every dish on the menu was identifiable.  Of course, it helped that I was actually in Weimar at the time of reading.  It meant that I could use Köstering’s novel like an off-beat tour guide. Which I did, in style, in one of these:

Sightseeing Weimar style


I also ate a rather unique dish in The White Swan: 

Beerenpfannkuchen mit Liebeserklärung

The declaration of love turned out to be a love poem from Goethe to Charlotte von Stein.  Sweet and delicious, just like the berry omelette! 

I wonder what delights await when I read the second in the trilogy, Goetheglut?  Should I wrangle myself another trip to Weimar before I do?

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You may remember, back in the day of my very first meet the translator interview, I tried to persuade Sally-Ann Spencer to translate Uwe Tellkamp’s German Book Prize winning behemoth, Der Turm, an examination of the last years of the German Democratic Republic.  Two years later and the English translation has actually appeared!  Published today, in fact.  (Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0241004579). Now as chance and Monica Cantieni’s event in Glasgow would have it, the translator, Mike Mitchell, found himself in the same room as Lizzy, who, shall we say, pounced! (I’m not one to miss an exclusive.) Here are the results.  My review of the book will follow on Sunday, 9.11.2014, the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.

How did you become a literary translator?
Literature was one of my main interests at school and I enjoyed translating from then onwards (just for myself). I taught German at university for 30 years; one attempt to get a book translated in the early 70s brought such a discouraging response from John Calder that I and a colleague, who was to edit it, just dropped it. However, by chance a US professor I’d written articles and a couple of chapters for decided to set up a publishing house for Austrian literature, culture etc and asked if I’d like to do a translation for them (Ariadne). I jumped at the chance; just as that appeared I saw the Dedalus series in the university bookshop and one of my favourite postwar novels seemed to fit; it did, but not only that, they were actually looking for a translator from German! In 1995 there was the opportunity of early retirement; I grabbed it and have worked as a translator ever since. As I’ve since learnt, especially when I was editor of Dedalus’s Europena series, I was incredibly lucky; there are so many people out there who’d like to be translators

“The Tower” is a 1000+ page literary extravanga of a novel. What persuaded you to take it on?
I was commissioned to do it — as a freelancer one is hesitant to refuse commissions but, anyway, it sounded like a challenge and I like that.

How did you manage to fit it into your schedule? How how many hours did you spend on it? (It took me six weeks just to read your translation!)  Are you entirely happy with the published product or are there pieces you’d like to finesse?
When I’m asked to do something, I work out how long it’s likely to take from past experience, add a few months so I don’t put myself under pressure and give the publisher a date. I think I’m happy with the final result — though I’m sure I could find something I’d change if I were to read it with a fine tooth comb. I couldn’t say how many hours it took now.

There are many literary references in the Tower, perhaps most obviously to Thomas Mann in the opening family gathering and the long, complex sentences. You have chosen to retain these. It’s quite fashionable these days in English translation to break long German sentences down into shorter English structures. Why did you chose not to take this approach?
I did break them down slightly but I felt that Tellkamp was aiming at a Mann reference in the opening section and it seemed appropriate to the kind of social group he’s portraying as the ‘Tower-dwellers’.

Did you collaborate with the author on the translation?
I sent him questions — some in particular about those early complex sentences — another reason for trying to retain them in English was the parallel between those sentence structures and aspects of the architecture, furnishings of the ‘Tower’ district he’s describing.

Do you have a favourite section in the Tower? 
I did really enjoy the section about the East Germans at the Leipzig Book Fair.  It’s supposed to be written by Meno, who’s a publisher’s editor and a writer, but he trained as a zoologist and he describes the East Germans attending the Book Fair as giant insects about to descend on the Western stands like a plague of locusts; then the way it’s planned like a military exercise and the special clothing Barbara makes, with pockets the exact size to conceal the paperbacks of the Western publishers they like; I found it a brilliant and funny little sketch but it’s also an indirect way of showing the East Germans’ hunger for anything from the West, especially books and that kind of thing.

Another episode that is amusing in itself but also shows the togetherness there could be in East Germany is the scene in the communal bath house.

You’ve translated well over 60 works in all genres from German to English. Which of these gave you the most pleasure? (Am hoping you’ll mention my favourite – The Great Bagarozy)

I did really enjoy Bagarozy — I was disappointed it didn’t make a greater impact here. Among my favourites it the first one I recommended to Dedalus: Rosendorfer’s Architect of Ruins. Another more recent one if Roblès’ Where Tigers are at Home. I also particularly enjoyed translating a long poem by Helmut Krausser: ‘The Denotation of Babel'; I never managed to get the whole thing published, though I think someone put it on the web after it was commended for the Stephen Spender prize.

You can take 3 works of German(-language) literature with you to the proverbial desert island. Which would they be and why?

I suspect it would be something like Goethe’s poetry; a favourite book is likely to pall but you can read poetry again and again and get different things out of it. (That’s a cop-out really) (Editor – not really.  Stefan Tobler chose to do this too. Must be something in it.  :) )

You may take 1 more work to translate. Which would it be and why?

Again, that’s awkward to answer. One book I’ve tried to interest publishers in (so far without success; if I’m resting, as actors say, I’ll translate it and publish it myself) is Carl Amery’s fantasy about a Papal attempt to put the Catholic Stuarts back on the British throne: Das Königsprojekt. It would have been nice to do it for the Scottish referendum debate, but I had too much on to make much progress. As you’ll see, my tastes are more for the fantastic than for earnest realism.


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Shortlisted for the 2011 Swiss Book Prize

Translated by Donal McLaughlin

At the heart of this quirky and good-natured novel is a serious political issue – that of immigration to Switzerland. Reading the wikipedia page on the subject, there appears to have been one referendum after the next in recent years, with the most recent narrowly voting for limitations and quotas on the numbers of immigrants from the European Union. The book is set in 1970, the year the Swiss narrowly rejected the popular initiative against foreign infiltration.

Enter a 5-year old narrator, who is in the process of being adopted. She’s not Swiss; she doesn’t even talk German. So not only does she have to grapple with new – and often very confusing circumstances – she doesn’t have the words to explain the intricacies of the situations she encounters. My father bought me from the council for 365 francs is her opening gambit, which is a little confusing until the context of the adoption asserts itself.

She is in every sense of the word the Grünschnabel (greenhorn or beginner) of the Swiss title, endearingly translated whippersnapper in the text by McLaughlin. She learns the new language by collecting and sorting German words into matchboxes. She has a strained relationship with her adoptive parents, particularly with her highly-strung mother, who is always swallowing her hellish misery pills. Happily she bonds well with her adoptive grandfather, Tat, the secret main character of the novel according to the author. Her world is populated by many immigrants, whose livelihoods are uncertain due to their temporary work permits. Her confidant is Snow White – a cuddly white rabbit.

Whippersnapper’s naivety injects comedy in the most unexpected places. Where else would you get political commentary like this?

The landlord sympathised with the foreigners …… He’d nothing against them wanting to increase in size.

“A pleasure shared is twice as great,” he said.

The foreigners understood him.

They called Eli (a Spanish bricklayer), and he erected a wall, made two flats out of one. Following which the landlord’s pleasure was twice as great and the foreigners’ was shared.

Monica Cantieni and Donal McLaughlin at the CCA, Glasgow 16.09.14

In other places the comedy is Kafkaesque. Tat is a double leg amputee, who, by a quirk of fate, has ended up with two artificial right legs. The insurance company has two legs on file, and so refuses to give Tat a third. Even the child can see the stupidity in this.

Underneath, however, are the serious issues. A child of one of the immigrant family friends is forced to live in a wardrobe, because she is not permitted to stay on her father’s permit. Whippersnapper must come to terms with life and death. It is obvious from the start that her beloved grandfather is fragile, on a downhill trajectory. There’s a funeral taking place as she arrives at her new home, resulting in an early philosophical conversation with her adoptive father about death. (Interestingly this was the first scene written, following the funeral of the author’s friend). The novel ends with her grandfather’s wake. The question to be answered is, did the man who together with Whippersnapper, created the eponymous Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons (or good arguments and reasonings), have enough time to ensure that his granddaughter could find her place in this strange new world without him?


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