Germany: now and then

The question of who decides which of the many millions of books in other languages make it into English has fascinated me since I started to plan this project to read a book from every country in the world in 2012. As confirmed by a recent seminar on ‘Gatekeepers’ at the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre, it’s a complex chicken-and-egg sort of issue that depends on who you think drives trends in publishing – publishers, readers, critics, translators or someone else entirely?

One person who was also at the Gatekeepers seminar was translator Katy Derbyshire (although I didn’t know this until a former colleague, translator Cathy Kerkhoff-Saxon, introduced us a few weeks later and we made the connection). Based in Berlin, Derbyshire has recently set up a book group for publisher And Other Stories, a small indie house that prides itself on sourcing great literature from some way off the beaten track.

The purpose behind the group, as she explained to me, is to use German literature fans to assess titles and recommend which ones the company should sign up for English translation. And Other Stories is, as far as she knows, the first publisher to work in this way and since the company was founded in 2010 it has built a reputation for putting out high-quality and innovative titles. Now Derbyshire hopes that her group of around 13 exchange students, translators and writers (most of them not native German speakers) will contribute to the growth of the company’s list by picking out works different to the clichéd German ‘Nazi novels’ that many UK publishers lean towards.

The connection with Derbyshire was doubly surprising because And Other Stories had sent me one of the first books she translated for them only a few weeks prior to the London Book Fair. With the powers that be seemingly conspiring to steer me towards this particular title, it seemed perverse to choose anything else.

Peopled with outsiders and underdogs, Clemens Meyer’s Leipzig Book Fair Prize-winning short story collection All the Lights puts society’s misfits centre stage. From the boxer on a losing streak to the unemployed loner whose world has shrunk to the letters he receives describing a long-lost friend’s adventures in South America, the characters in Meyer’s universe are all diminished, saddened versions of their younger selves, often set against the unforgiving backdrop of post-unification East Germany.

Many have retreated into paranoia, as in ‘The Shotgun , the Street Lamp and Mary Monroe’, in which a mentally ill addict mutters to himself in the living room up the hall from the bedroom where his girlfriend lies, ominously still:

‘I need a strong heart so I don’t go back to my shoes. In my shoes, out in the hall. I’ve hidden something in there under the orthopaedic insole, it’s a sort of emergency supply, but I don’t need it anymore, I’ll chuck it down the toilet later and flush it away, but actually an emergency supply’s only for a real emergency, and I’m sure that won’t happen now, and if it does I’ll stick it out, so I might as well just leave the stuff in my shoe.’

Meyer’s minimalist style (rendered through Derbyshire’s deft translation) enables him to cram words with significance, changing the mood in a clause and sketching a backstory in a sentence. This means that he can evoke extremely powerful and often surprising responses in the reader. ‘Of Dogs and Horses’, for example, in which we spend the story anticipating one kind of disaster only for the rug to be pulled from under us in quite another way in the final ten words, is devastating. Similarly, in ‘Fatty Loves’, we find ourselves in the unusual position of pitying a middle-aged teacher dismissed for an inappropriate relationship with a young girl.

This minimalism combines with a jagged chronology in which time jumps like a scratched record, hurling the characters back and forth between the present and the years gone by. With hints of missed connections between the stories – the same description of a girl’s teeth cropping up twice leading us to wonder whether the adult in one story is the same as the girl in ‘Fatty Loves’, familiar hints of the school sports field, and the humming of fridges in several lonely flats – this creates a powerful sense of wistfulness, as though other, better possibilities are forever unfolding slightly out of reach.

Once or twice the structure becomes a tad baggy as a result, as in ‘Riding the Rails’, the least successful story in the collection, in which a pair of ex-cons lose themselves in a rent-boy scam. For the most part though, it is incredibly skilfully handled.

Stuart Evers writes in his introduction that the stories reveal ‘the terrifying possibility of now’, but there is a sepia tint to Meyer’s lens that undercuts this statement. These tales take place in a world where people are woken by digital clocks rather than mobile phone alarms, where they make calls from phone boxes, write letters, and think in Deutschmarks, and where the tentacles of the internet have yet to penetrate. Seen in this light, the works are more about the tragic properties of ‘then’ than the possibilities of now. But Meyer’s achievement is to make that ‘then’ belong to all of us, whether we lived through it or not. Outstanding.

All the Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (And Other Stories, 2011)

12 responses

  1. I liked this collection, but I didn’t love it. It was a bit hit and miss (and I regret having read it in English – I kept thinking that it might be better in German…). I’ve loved all the others I’ve read from And Other Stories though – a great idea 🙂

    • Thanks Tony. I agree that some of the stories are less successful than others. The best of the bunch really blew me away though – I will be following And Other Stories’ list carefully. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I have to be honest, I read this post and I saw this sentence “rendered through Derbyshire’s deft translation”, which made me pause. It’s a common thing to read in reviews of translations, but I did wonder if you did actually read the original. If you read it and compared it to the translation. Possibly you did. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

    I just want to point out that judging the quality of a translation without having read the translation is deeply problematic. Not the quality of a work. Not the quality of a story. But the language and everything that relates to it. Including comments on the author’s style – because you in translation you are reading the words chosen by the translator. Guided by the author, but still chosen by the translator. It’s possible that Meyer is minimalistic, but without knowing the original language or having read the original work, one can’t know and judge this.

    I hope you don’t misunderstand my comment – since you know what I do in every day life, you’ll probably understand where I’m coming from. (And I can tell you one of the translations I’m analysing was praised for years by people who didn’t speak the language of the original until a new translator came along 60 years later, retranslated the work and included an infamous introduction lambasting the previous translator by listing her mistakes for several pages.)

    • Thanks Alua. No I didn’t read the original in this case – I can read German, but being pushed for time I don’t quite have time to read two versions.

      Of course you are right that strictly speaking you cannot comment on the quality of the translation without reading the original, however, I think you can recognise creativity, innovation and ingenuity sometimes even without having read the primary text – I certainly found this with my Indonesian book, where it was clear the translator must have done some very fancy footwork.

      I also think it can be valid to talk about style when you’re talking about work in translation as there is a certain contract of trust with translators that they will put across something of the flavour of the original work. Again, this is an inexact science and of course it will sometimes be unrepresentative of the original, but it doesn’t invalidate the experience of reading and the fact that the reader will feel they are engaging with the style of that author, whether misguidedly or not – of course some of that is of course down to the way we write about texts and we do have a responsibility to bear this in mind.

      No doubt others will have other views. It’s good to have a reminder of the challenges in encountering translated work – will think twice about using the word ‘rendering’ again 🙂

      • In my ‘work'(!) on the Shadow IFFP Panel this year, I found it very clear when a translation worked and when it didn’t. I think it’s fairly straightforward to tell if a translation is ‘good’ in the sense of being a well-written, cohesive text, but more difficult to know whether it’s ‘good’ in the sense of being a faithful rendering of the the original. Of course, the role of a translator is to do both, as far as that is possible 😉

      • Thanks Tony. You put it better than I did. Essentially there are (at least) two aspects of translation, aren’t there – faithfulness to the original and creating an enjoyable/powerful/striking text in the new language.

        We’re not in a position to judge the former for most languages but we can comment on the latter. As Valerie Henitiuk of the British Centre for Translation told me when I asked her what makes a good translation: ask yourself, did I enjoy it?

  3. The ‘Nazi novels’ that you mention don’t actually usually come from Germany, but are written by English or American writers.

    One of the good and thrilling novels about this time which was written by a German author, Hans Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone” (published as “Alone in Berlin” in the UK), actually took 60 years to get translated into English:

    German ‘Nazi novels’ are usually quite different from US/UK ones. The latter ones concentrate on the war, conspiracy, espionage and action, while German novels tend to center on the Holocaust.
    One of the best short novels about this time that was originally written in German is “Jakob the Liar” by Jurek Becker.

    • Thanks. I’ll add it to the list. Sadly I only have time for one book per country this year (the list contains all the recommendations I’ve had), but hey there’s always next year. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I’m Austrian but of course I’m also familiar with German literature. One contemporary must-read are “The Kangaroo Chronicles” by Marc-Uwe Kling. I’m not sure if they have been translated into English but they are about the author(?) sharing a flat with a communist kangaroo. It’s hilarious and highly thought-provoking. I love these books!

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