In Germany these days, freedom is everywhere. Or rather, Freiheit: the egg-bedecked cover of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel dominated the front table of nearly every bookstore I visited on a recent, weeklong tour. Somewhere nearby, invariably, loomed stacks of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tiere Essen (Eating Animals), Paul Auster’s Unsichtbar (Invisible), and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (Eat Pray Love). I’ll admit that I found it comforting, in what was otherwise terra incognita, to encounter names without umlauts. Still, on the eve of the umpteenth annual Frankfurt Book Fair, it seemed to me striking evidence of a literary trade imbalance between the U.S. and Germany that so many of our books should be front-and-center in their buchhandlungs while so few of theirs are available in English at all.
This situation is not unique to Germany, of course. The figure “three percent” has become notorious shorthand for the proportion of foreign-language books appearing in English each year. Nonetheless, in the wake of the Bolaño craze, there appears to have been an uptick in the rate of translation from the Spanish. And a steady current of French literature, from Duras to Houellebecq, has always lapped our shores.
One would think, in light of Germany’s 500-year history as the publishing capital of the world, that the literary luminaries of its language, too, would have a following on this side of the Atlantic, as they did in the epoch of Mann and Broch, Hesse and Musil, Canetti and Döblin. And certainly, Anglo-German literary relations recovered quickly enough from World War II. Such eminences grises as Günter Grass, Christa Wolf, and Martin Walser have long been available Stateside, as have the postwar heavyweights Heinrich Böll, Uwe Johnson, and Arno Schmidt (though only part of Johnson’s magnum opus, Anniversaries, has been translated, and Schmidt’s, Zettels Traum, is said to be untranslatable). A handful of writers who appeared later, notably Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and W.G. Sebald, are widely read in the U.S. But as the most esteemed German-language writers born after the war – the Thuringian Franzens and Foers, the Austrian Smileys and Gaitskills – remain largely untranslated or unknown, I made it an informal project, as I traveled from Munich to Hamburg to Berlin, to ask every critic and editor and bookseller and journalist I encountered to tell me whom I should be reading.
Two of the names mentioned most frequently were Wolf Haas and Marcel Beyer. Haas, born in Austria in 1960, is the author of nine books. Nearly everyone I talked to said they couldn’t imagine translating his voice-driven prose, but it turns out that Ariadne Press last year brought out an English edition of his 2006 novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago. Scott Esposito reviewed the book favorably at Conversational Reading: “[It] is indeed a delight for people who enjoy play with metanarrative and conceptual games, but it also has quite a bit of what, for lack of a better name, I might call good old fashioned realism.” Beyer, born in 1965, has been even more prolific than Haas. One critic told me that his early work is the best, and happily for American readers, his first novel, The Karnau Tapes, as well as Spies (2000), are available in translation.
The recent Nobel Prize winners Elfride Jelinek (b. 1946) and Herta Müller (b. 1953) also came up often. Thanks to the concerted efforts of small American presses, even before the Nobel announcements, both have multiple books available in English. Hari Kunzru’s “Year in Reading” entry on Jelinek’s Wonderful Wonderful Times last year seems to comport with the findings of my informal poll: “I don’t want to live in her world, but suspect that in fact I do,” Kunzru says. “This is what makes her a great writer.” The Romanian-born Müller was spoken of even more highly – one Berliner waxed positively rapturous about her exploration of the brutal history of Central Europe in the era of World War II and the Iron Curtain.
Another Berliner, a journalist, suggested I take a look at a novel that concerns more recent history: September, by Thomas Lehr (b. 1957), a finalist for the German Book Prize. It has not yet appeared in translation, but an excerpt is currently available at signandsight. Funeral for a Dog, by Thomas Pletzinger (b. 1975) winner of the Uwe Johnson Prize, also deals with the September 11 attacks, albeit more obliquely; a book scout I talked to seemed very excited about the novel, which is scheduled to appear next year in a translation by the excellent Ross Benjamin. Other younger writers I was encouraged to read were Andreas Neumeister (b. 1959) and Michael Lentz (b. 1964), neither of whose books have yet been translated into English.
One of the most exciting developments in the Germany literary scene, according to a Bavarian sales representative, has been the appearance of narratives from the country’s large immigrant population. Like Aleksandar Hemon in English, these non-native speakers have reinvigorated their adopted language by hearing it with new ears. The sales rep singled out the Russian expat Alina Bronsky (b. 1978) for particular praise…and lo and behold, Europa Editions brought out Broken Glass Park just this year. The German Book Prize-nominated How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, published by Grove Atlantic, fashions a similarly effervescent prose idiom to reimagine the coming-of-age of author Sasa Stanisic (b. 1978) during the Bosnian War.
Finally, it may be worth mentioning a few writers who appeared in our “Prizewinners: International Edition” project a couple of years ago. Norbert Gstrein (b. 1961) has a new novel out this fall, though none of his work has appeared in English since 1995’s Döblin Prize-winning The English Years (natch). Katja Lange-Müller (b. 1951), another Döblin Prize winner, has been featured at the PEN World Voices Festival, but her work remains available in translation only in anthologies such as Oxford U.P.’s Berlin Tales.
One of the most frequently translated contemporary German writers is Ingo Schulze (b. 1962). A recent essay by the critic Marcel Inhoff complained about Schulze’s style, comparing him to his antecedents, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Leo Perutz. Unlike me, Inhoff reads German, but his argument seems to elide a key point: since his debut, 33 Moments of Happiness: St. Petersburg Stories, Schulze has looked as much to the East as to the West. What may look like casual journalese to Inhoff strikes me as a Germanic spin on the venerable Russian tradition of skaz – especially in the recently translated One More Story. In its narrative surprises, this book struck me as the equal of either of this year’s Bolaño collections. Even more affecting is Schulze’s expansive reunification novel, New Lives, whose hapless antihero, Enrico “Heinrich” Türmer, has stayed with me since I read it.
Whatever the merits of Inhoff’s critique, it directs us to a few more contemporary writers of distinction: Hartmut Lange, Patrick Roth, Thomas Stangl, Reinhard Jurgl, and Clemens J. Stetz. Like the one above, this is a partial list (though doubtless more authoritative). But even my own fragmentary catalogue of German-language novelists seems superior to the offerings currently available in American bookstores, notwithstanding the efforts of Europa and Ariadne and other fine publishers (and The Literary Saloon, The Quarterly Conversation, and Three Percent). Here’s hoping that such lists at least call attention to the imbalance, and light a fire under those who might remedy it.
As a judge for an upstart literary award specializing in translated literature, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. After all, aren’t there enough literary awards out there already? And translated literature—what’s up with that? Don’t Americans care far more about the latest celebrity bio than some piece of literature written in Austria?
There’s even more to make us feel unimportant. Unlike some awards, we don’t have thousands of dollars of prize money to give to our winner (instead we have very classy bookends). Nor do we have a prestigious history going back decades (we’ve only been doing this since 2008). Heck, in all likelihood our winner won’t even speak English, so we’ll have to use Google Translate to congratulate him or her.
Yes, though we’ve been covered in places like The Guardian and The Independent, there’s a lot to make the University of Rochester’s Best Translated Book Award feel inadequate, but there’s one very important thing we’ll never feel inadequate about: the books—we have outstanding books that most people have probably never heard of. The Pulitzer is all well and good, but does it have a Russian surrealist writing about a commie Eiffel Tower that runs away and commits suicide? Or how about an asshole B actor on a Brazilian soap opera who gets his kicks by giving graphic interviews to innocent female journalists? Does it perhaps have a metafictional novel told in the form of an interview about said novel? Or even a comic, quasi-philosophical romp about an Argentine high-rise apartment building that’s under construction and infested with ghosts?
After a long year of reading and judging the best literature translated into English in 2009, we—the few, the proud, the obscure judges of the Best Translated Book Award—are proud to announce our ten finalists.
Anonymous Celebrity by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão – Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira. (Brazil, Dalkey Archive)
The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven – Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)
The Discoverer by Jan Kjaerstad – Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)
Ghosts by Cesar Aira – Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Argentina, New Directions)
Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky – Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)
Rex by José Manuel Prieto – Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove)
The Tanners by Robert Walser – Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker – Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. (Netherlands, Archipelago)
The Weather Fifteen Years Ago by Wolf Haas – Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne Press)
Wonder by Hugo Claus – Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim. (Belgium, Archipelago)
These books, of course, include all of what I’ve just laid out above, plus a number of equally compelling books that didn’t so easily lend themselves to single-sentence summarization. In many cases they were among my favorite reads in all of 2009—translated or otherwise—and in all cases they are fine works of literature that I would absolutely recommend to a friend.
But if I did recommend them, would they be read? For as small a field as translated literature is—we constantly hear that only 3% of books published in English are translated—it has nonetheless generated a remarkable number of clichés and myths, most of them negative. Two of the most pernicious are that American readers just don’t care about literature from beyond the United States and that translations are somehow lesser copies that would be a waste of time to read.
As to the first one, I believe myself and the other judges are all the proof you will need to put that myth to rest. In no cases were we reared by families of translation-lovers who instilled in us an ethic to read beyond our national borders. We don’t read these translations because we view it as social work, nor because we’re all bleeding hearts who have made these books our crusade. No. We are simply lovers of great literature, readers just like anyone who visits The Millions wondering what to read next. True, somehow we happened to discover all that one misses out on if—for some mysterious reason—you constrain yourself to books created solely by others who happen to speak the same language that you do. But I don’t really believe in the existence of these translation-averse readers that I keep hearing about. Quite frankly, if translated literature was bad enough to cause a generation of readers to retch at the very sight of it, you couldn’t get me to give up my reading time to wade through a pile of it every year. I just wouldn’t do it. But the reality of the matter is quite the opposite (and I think I speak for all the judges when I say this): we judge this prize because the books are incredibly good, and it’s a treat to have publishers and our fellow judges vying to place so many excellent books before us.
As to the second myth, that these translations we read and judge are somehow an adulteration of the original. I suppose there are some stuffy, absolutist authors out there who actually believe this nonsense, but in all the time I’ve corresponded with translators and the authors they translate, I’ve never found a single person to espouse that opinion. Quite the opposite. Very frequently authors will see the translation as a unique creation in its own right, neither greater nor lesser than the original book. (In fact, Jose Manuel Prieto, whose novel Rex graces our list of finalists, endorses this opinion right in his book.) Some very famous authors have even claimed that they like the translation better than the original. Even if some authors will say that they prefer the original to the translation (and wouldn’t you, knowing you wrote the original?), they will be quick to add that ninety percent of, say, Tolstoy is better than zero percent, which is what most of us would have if we had to read it in Russian.
So now that we have spent a year to put this list of finalists together, I encourage everyone to give at least one of these titles a shot and see if they aren’t refreshed and inspired by reading beyond our language’s borders. (To help you pick, you can see write-ups of all the finalists.) These are all books that explore the possibilities of language and literature in exciting and innovative ways, they are all books that offer fresh perspectives, and most of all, like any good work of literature they are all books that offer the chance to see things we didn’t know we wanted to see. And remember to check in for the announcement of the Best Translated Book for 2009 on March 10.