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.


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?



Welcome all as the best day of the year dawns; the day heralding 30 days of undiluted reading/blogging pleasure.  Let German Literature Month commence!

I’m impressed with the reading plans that have been published over the last month or so.  If all those books are read, this will be the best GLM yet.  I haven’t published my plans because they’ve been changing on a almost daily basis.  Right now though my German Literature Month looks like this:

Week One (Award Winners Week)
The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons – Monica Cantieni (Swiss Book Prize Shortlistee)
The Tower – Uwe Tellkamp (German Book Prize Winner)

Week Two – Read As You Please (Crime)
Goetheruh – Bernd Köstering
Big Bad Wolf – Nele Neuhaus

Week Three – Read As You Please (Ladies on My Completist List)
Jenny Erpenbeck – The End of Days
Alina Bronsky – Call Me Superhero
Julia Franck – West

Week Four – Joseph Roth Week (or in my case Novelists of The Weimar Republic)
Berlin in the 1930’s: Hans Fallada – What Now,  Little Man? / Erich Kästner – Going to The Dogs
Vicki Baum – Grand Hotel
Joseph Roth – Flight Without End

It’s a selection that ticks almost all the boxes on the pick and mix challenge. (Rules here.) Although something that is not a novel is missing.  I’ll see if I can squeeze in some poetry somewhere along the line. The challenge won’t be in the reading, but in the reviewing. Thanks to a very busy October, I’m a little out of practice.

I’m adding one additional personal challenge  – I must not purchase any titles reviewed elsewhere during German Literature Month. Which means you must not seduce me into making my TBR larger, particularly as, given the bounteous harvest of new German literature releases this autumn, I will probably be reading German literature until the end of the year.  I am allowed to add to my wishlist – I’ll let you know how many that turns out to be at the end of the month.


A tiny piece of hostess admin before the fun begins in earnest.  The German Literature Month blog is once more up and running and all participants with blogs  (30+ – how terrific is that!) have been added to the blogroll.  If you’re joining in, and don’t see your name up in lights, so to speak, please leave a comment below and you will be added.

There are also prizes to be won by participating.  Whoever tallies the most pick and mix points will win a copy of both Berlin Tales and Vienna Tales, kindly donated by Oxford University Press.  Caroline and I will chose our favourite post and the writer will win 2 titles by Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of The Tartar Cuisine and Call Me Superhero, kindly donated by Europa Editions.  For your reviews to be in the running for these prizes, please link them into the Mr Linky on the German Literature Month blog.

All that remains is for Caroline and I to wish you a very enjoyable November.  :)





Thankfully German Literature Month (GLM) starts on Saturday and that will give me time to review some of the books I read in preparation. (4 completed and pictured with just 50 pages to go of a 1000-page extravaganza).  I kept myself reasonably up-to-date review-wise during September, but October whizzed by in a flurry of flu, a renovation project and an unrelated broken boiler that caused far more disruption than they should have, plus house guests from Canada. (Fortunately house was rendered habitable just-in-time for their arrival.) Given that I just wanted to read in downtime, I’m afraid reviews of October’s non-GLM books and activities shall be confined to the following summaries.

Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress, is all kinds of magnificence. I could tell she was enjoying herself writing these.  They are playful, exuberant, full of wicked wit and an absolute joy to read.  If you need more detail, see Victoria’s review at Shiny New Books.  I agree with every word. My only regret is that I read a library book. I now want my own copy. Five_Stars.GIF

Nathan Filer’s The Shock of The Fall, winner of the 2013 Costa Book of the Year is another reading highlight.  A dead cert to win my tearjerker award of the year.  I haven’t had such a cathartic sob for years!  Five_Stars.GIF

Oh yes, North Lanarkshire’s Encounters Festival was held during October also.  And Nathan Filer appeared at it!  Interesting questions and experiences from the audience who were more concerned with the mental health issues than the literary aspects of the novel. 

Then there was the 10th anniversary of my book group which was celebrated with cake, cava and a visit from the Scottish crime writer and co-founder of Bloody Scotland, Lin Anderson.   Don’t we look pre-cava pretty?

I’ll confess to not having read Anderson before the event but I was absolutely blown away by the opening chapter of Picture Her Dead.  Best 1st chapter of the year … and the rest of the novel is pretty darn good as well. It’s the 8th in her Rhona McCleod series – not that it matters.  I had to read it as a stand-alone, and it works as such. Who knew there were so many disused cinemas in Glasgow or that they would spawn such an intrigung premise for a crime novel!  The only downside is that I now want to start reading the series from the beginning.  But do I have the time to add another 7 novels to my 1000+ TBR?  Rhetorical question.  The answer is no but I will read number 9 sooner rather than later. 4_stars.GIF

So there you have it, proof that Murphy’s law does indeed exist. In a period when I had precious little time for blogging, I read three books which will doubtless appear in my best of year list. 

There is time for just one more pre-#germanlitmonth giveaway.  Actually this is also a pre-release date giveway!

Julia Franck won the German book Prize with The Blind Side of the Heart in 2007.  It remains my favourite translated German Book Prize winner to date.  I am, therefore, looking forward to her latest novel, West, which will be released in the UK, and Harvill Secker have kindly offered 5 copies to UK-based German Literature Month participants.

Here’s the blurb.

 Translated by Anthea Bell

Scientist Nelly Senff is desperate to escape her life in East Berlin. The father of her two children has supposedly committed suicide, and she wants to leave behind the prying eyes of the Stasi.

But the West is not all she hoped for. Nelly and her children are held in Marienfelde, a processing centre and no-man’s-land between East and West. There she meets Krystyna, a Polish woman who hopes that medical treatment in the West will save her dying brother; Hans, a troubled actor released from prison in the East; and John, a CIA man monitoring the refugees for possible Stasi spies. All lives cross here, and the cramped confines of the camp breed defamation and violence.

West is a devastating portrait of a mother in turmoil, trying to do the best for her children, as she attempts to escape her past and start a new life.


If you’re based in the UK and would like to read West, please leave a comment below. Let me know also if you’d like me to organise a #germanlitmonth book discussion sometime during the 3rd week of November.  Winners will be selected by some random process on Sunday 26th October.  

It’s become a bit of a joke at work.  Whenever I go into Edinburgh for a half-day conference, I take a half-day’s leave to go adventuring in the city afterwards. Edinburgh, City of Literature, never ceases to surprise me and last Tuesday was no exception.

As I disembarked at Waverley Station (the only rail station in the world to be named after a novel), who did I meet?  None other than Sir Walther Scott, author of said novel, in the middle of distributing 25,000 books! The book, produced by the City of Literature for the 10th anniversary of Edinburgh being proclaimed a Permanent City of Literature, celebrates Scott and his work.  As indeed did Waverley station that day which was decorated with the wit and wisdom of a man, who was so much more than a novelist.

Digital copies of the special release available here, if you’re interested.

I had to rush off to my conference, but I had time during my afternoon off to take some photos.  By the looks of Scott, his latest gifts to the nation were snapped up like hot cakes.

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Never has Waverley station been so endearing and the surprise served as a timely reminder that I’d best get my skates on, if I want to read Waverley in its bicentennial year.


There have been a number of requests for a list of new things to read during #germanlitmonth. Happy to oblige.

Firstly a couple of tips as to where you can hunt out the new.

1) Download the 3 percent database lists all new translations in the US.  Most of the German titles there (and there are 40 of them) have also been published in the UK this year.

2) Check out New Books in German which has a feature on newly released translations.

3) Keep your eye on The German and Swiss Lists from Seagull Books.  Always plenty of interesting reads to be found among them, including 2 I’ve selected below,

I was intending to keep up with the new releases this year, but, as it is wont, time has run away from me  Plus it has been a year of plenty! I’ll need next year to catch up.  That shouldn’t be a problem as there appears to be an almost total famine of translations from German in the 2015 UK spring catalogues.

Nevertheless below is a selection of 10 2014 contemporary fiction releases, complete with publishers’  blurb. For the purposes of this post, contemporary fiction means authors who are still living with books available in English by 12th October.  

Without further ado:

Volker Braun – Rubble Flora

Translated by David Constantine and Karen Leeder

For poetry lovers. 

Rubble Flora is a selection of poems from the distinguished, half-century-long career of German poet Volker Braun. Born in the former East Germany, Braun is a humane, witty, brave, and disappointed poet. In the East, his poetry upheld the voice of the individual imagination and identified with a utopian possibility that never became reality. He might be said to have found a truly singular voice amid the colossal upheavals of 1989-exploring the triumph of capitalism and the languages of advertising, terror, politics, and war. At the same time, Braun is a sensual poet in tune with the natural landscape. He has his own touchstones in world literature, and many of his poems set quotations from Rimbaud, Shakespeare, and Brecht into his own context, where they work as ironic illuminations of a present plight. The literary principle of his work lies in the friction of these different voices, whether cast into free form, collage, or classical verse. Cumulatively, Rubble Flora offers a searing vision of these transformative decades.

Alina Bronsky – Just Call Me Superhero

Translated by Tim Mohr

For those seeking something completely different. 
After an encounter with a dog in which he was worsted, seventeen-year-old Marek begins attending a support group for young people with physical disabilities, which he dubs “the cripple group,” led by an eccentric older man known as The Guru. Marek is dismissive of the other members of the support group, seeing little connection between their misfortunes and his own. The one exception to this is Janne, the beautiful young and wheelchair-bound woman with whom he has fallen in love. When a family crisis forces Marek to face his demons, group or no group, he is in dire need of support. But the distance he has put between himself and The Guru’s misshapen acolytes may well be too great to bridge.
An atmospheric evocation of modern Berlin and a vivid portrait of youth under pressure, Just Call Me a Superhero is destined to consolidate Alina Bronsky’s reputation as one of Europe’s most wryly entertaining and stylish authors.

Arno Camenisch – The Alp

Translated from Romansh by the author into German, and from German to English by Donal McLaughlin

For those who prefer short reads. 

The first novel in Arno Camenisch’s celebrated “alpine” trilogy is set during a single summer. The four main (unnamed) characters are a dairyman, his farmhand, a cowherd, and a swineherd who all live and work in close proximity — but this is no Heidi. Theirs is an existence marked by dangerous work, solitude, cruelty, alcoholism, and sheer stubbornness; but the author’s handling of these situations and lives is characterized at all times by affection, surreal humor, and a brilliant ear for the sounds of the setting.

Monica Cantieni – The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons

Shortlisted for the 2011 Swiss Fiction prize

Translated by Donal McLaughlin (and recommended by me.  To be reviewed during #germanlitmonth)

For those seeking a quirky read with serious undertones.

 “My father bought me from the council for 365 francs,” recalls the narrator in Monica Cantieni’s novel The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons. She’s a young girl, an immigrant to Switzerland whose adoption has yet to be finalized. When she finally moves into her new home with her new family, she recounts her days in the orphanage and how starkly different her life is now. Her new community speaks German, a language foreign to her, and she collects words and phrases in matchboxes. Though her relationship with her adoptive parents is strained, she bonds with her adoptive grandfather, Tat, and together they create the eponymous Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons. Set in the time of the crucial 1970 Swiss referendum on immigration, the book introduces us to a host of colorful characters who struggle to make Switzerland their home: Eli, the Spanish bricklayer; Toni, the Italian factory worker with movie star looks; Madame Jelisaweta, the Yugoslav hairdresser; and Milena, the mysterious girl in the wardrobe. This is a book with a very warm heart, and rarely has a young girl’s narrative been at once so uproariously hilarious and so deeply moving. 

Wolfgang Herrndorf – Why We Took The Car

Winner of the German Teen Literature Prize

Translated by Tim Mohr

For the young at heart and those who would like to participate in our sponsor’s forthcoming book club.

Mike doesn’t get why people think he’s boring. Sure, he doesn’t have many friends. (OK, zero friends.) And everyone laughs at him when he reads his essays out loud in class. And he’s never invited to parties.

But one day Tschick, the odd new boy at school, shows up at Mike’s house out of the blue. He dares him to go on a road trip with him. No parents, no map, no destination. Will they get hopelessly lost in the middle of nowhere? Probably. Will they meet crazy people and get into serious trouble? Definitely. But will they ever be called boring again?

Not a chance.

Michael Kumpfmüller – The Glory of Life

Winner of The Jean Monnet Prize for European Literature

Translated by Anthea Bell

For Kafka fans. 

In July 1923, Franz Kafka is convalescing by the Baltic Sea when he meets Dora Diamant and falls in love. Set over the last year of Kafka’s life, the tale of Franz and Dora’s fragile time together in a Germany juxtaposes the excitement and vitality of Weimar Berlin with Kafka’s indecision and failing health. Mediated through letters, telegraphs, and the telephone, Michael Kumpfmuller captures the exhilaration of modernity and the essence of a friendship nourished by communication.”The Glory of Life” meditates on what really makes life worth living. A compelling combination of historical research and fictional reconstruction, this evocative and artful novel captures the inner life of one of the twentieth century’s most influential and revered literary figures.

Nele Neuhaus – Big Bad Wolf

Translated by Stephen T Murray (and recommended by me.  To be reviewed durng #germanlitmonth.)

For crime lovers and those wanting to find out what happens after Snow White Must Die.

On a hot day in July, the body of a sixteen-year-old girl is pulled from the river Main near Frankfurt. She has been brutally attacked and murdered, but no one seems to miss her and no one seems to know who she is. Investigations lead to a rural children’s home in the mountains, and to a TV presenter whose research took her too close to the wrong people. As investigators Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein dig deeper, they uncover a web of lies and deceit in the midst of a middle-class idyll. And then the case gets personal . . .

Clemens Setz – Indigo

Shortlisted for 2012 German Book Prize

Translated by Ross Benjamin

For lovers of metafictional (?) psychological thrillers.

It is 2007 and Austria is in the grip of a sinister epidemic: Indigo Syndrome. Children are the carriers, and anyone who comes near them is afflicted with severe headaches, nausea, and vertigo. These Indigo children are sent away to the Helianau Institute in Styria, in the mountainous heart of the country, a protected zone where they cannot affect the wider population. There, one of the teachers, Clemens Setz, witnesses students being taken away in strange masks. They never come back. When Setz tries to find out what is going on, he swiftly loses his job, but he doesn’t give up trying to uncover Helianau’s dark secrets.

Timur Vermes – Look Who’s Back

Translated by Jaimie Bulloch

Winner of Lizzy’s Best Book Trailer of the Year.  :) Also bestseller of the bunch.

For those who aren’t afraid to break taboos. 

Berlin, Summer 2011. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of open ground, alive and well. Things have changed – no Eva Braun, no Nazi party, no war. Hitler barely recognises his beloved Fatherland, filled with immigrants and run by a woman.

People certainly recognise him, albeit as a flawless impersonator who refuses to break character. The unthinkable, the inevitable happens, and the ranting Hitler goes viral, becomes a YouTube star, gets his own T.V. show, and people begin to listen. But the Führer has another programme with even greater ambition – to set the country he finds a shambles back to rights.

Look Who’s Back stunned and then thrilled 1.5 million German readers with its fearless approach to the most taboo of subjects. Naive yet insightful, repellent yet strangely sympathetic, the revived Hitler unquestionably has a spring in his step.

Juli Zeh – Decompression

Translated by John Cullen

More psychological thrillery from a lady on my completist list and a book I have actually read and reviewed.

Jola is a beautiful and privileged soap star who wants very much to be taken seriously; her partner Theo is a middle-aged author with writers’ block. In an attempt to further her career, Jola is determined to land the lead role in a new film about underwater photographer and model Lotte Hass.

To improve her chances, the couple travel to Lanzarote and hire diving instructor Sven, paying him a large sum for exclusive tuition. Sven is meticulously planning his most ambitious expedition yet – to an untouched wreck 100 metres down on the ocean floor. Diving calls for a cool head and, as a sinister love triangle develops, events rapidly get out of hand. But whose story do we trust – Sven’s or Jola’s?

Deliciously claustrophobic, smart, and unrelentingly intense, this psychological thriller with shades of Patricia Highsmith will leave readers gasping for air


Thanks to the generosity of the Glasgow Goethe Institute, I can offer 3 readers their pick of the crop.  Just leave a comment saying which book you’d like to read, and where you would review it during German Literature Month.  Competition is open internationally. 

if you want the book in a language other than English, please say so.  If the Book Depository stocks it and delivers to your country, this will be doable.

Winners will be chosen and notified by email on Sunday 12th October.



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