To Be Translated or Not To Be: Case Studies — Germany

Germany is the next country covered in the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report. (For anyone interested, all the earlier posts about this report can be found by clicking here.)

This section was written by Riky Stock, who is the director of the admirable and ambitious German Book Office. Putting aside the content of her report for a second, it’s worth pointing out that this is the first case study we’ve featured written by someone based in the U.S. (The forthcoming French case study is from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, but I believe Anne-Sophie Simenel wrote this before moving here.) In the context of promoting a country’s literature, this seems like a pretty important structural change.

For those not familiar with it, the German Book Office is one of the “Book Information Centers” created by the Frankfurt Book Fair to “serve as a contact exchange and cultural mediator between the German book trade and that of the office’s host country.” Other offices are in Beijing, Bucharest, Moscow, and Warsaw.

On a practical level, these Centers work with publishers, critics, journalists, academics, and translators in the host country to help promote German literature. They provide information about new books, disseminate New Books in German, assist publishers in getting translation grants, host and arrange events celebrating German literature, provide information about Frankfurt Book Fair fellowships, and—at least in the case of the NY GBO—arrange annual editors’ trips to Germany. And I know I’m forgetting/overlooking other things as well . . .

This level of activity in the U.S. is in stark contrast to some of the other countries featured in this report, and seems to be paying off. (In the Center for Book Culture report, Germany/Austria/Switzerland averaged 6 literary works in translation a year between 2000-06, which is the third highest, behind France and Italy. According to our 2008 Translation database, there are 15 books translated from German coming out this year . . .)

Riky points to the why of this in her report:

The most effective practices in promoting German literature are making personal contacts, establishing networks, and maintaining a continuous presence in the publishing scene of another country. This helps to understand the market, exchange information, bring people together, and facilitate book deals. Simply pitching the perfect book to a suitable publisher is not enough. Books sell better when editors trust someone else’s opinion and feel that they will continue to get support once the book has been published.

Based on this logic, and the existence of a Book Center in Warsaw, it’s not surprising that in 2005, Poland was the country that bought the most rights to German titles. (They bought rights to 604 titles, 8.1% of the total 7,491 deals made in 2005.)

The German Book Prize is another activity that’s helping bring more attention to German literature. It was established in 2005 (Arno Geiger won that year for Es geht uns gut) and is modeled on the UK’s Man Book Prize. There are differing opinions on the usefulness of prizes in getting books translated, but the 2006 winner—Katharina Hacker’s The Have-Nots was recently published by Europa. (We currently have this under review.)

One of the more controversial sections of this case study correlates the shift in the typical German writing style to the increase in English-translations:

The increased interest in German literature can also be explained by the change in writing. The year 1989 marked the end of East German literature, but the political upheavals marked a turning point for West German literature as well. The end of post-war literature was near, a genre that had been dominated by writers such as Heinrich Boll, Uwe Johnson, and Gunter Grass. [. . .]

This new generation of German writers turned its back on the writing of the post-war generation, as well as on the experimental, postmodernist, and psychoanalytical writing of the ’70s and ’80s. Before this new kind of renaissance in German literature, German publishers remember their attempts to sell rights to their authors’ work in other countries as a “humiliating experience.” German writing was viewed at that time as academic, serious, and indigestible.

The new German novel, according to the New York Times is “less weighty, more exportable.”

I’m not sure what to think of this . . . I think Riky’s right—this shift in writing has made it easy to publish German literature in translation, but taken to the extreme, the idea of abandoning a particular literary tradition for a style of writing that’s more accessible to the global marketplace is kind of disturbing. (I don’t think that is happening in the authors cited—Daniel Kehlmann, Julie Zeh, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Ingo Schulze—but I could see that thought process taking hold among writers all over the world who really want to become international best-sellers. And to my elitist tastes, that’s sort of sad.)

Like with Argentina, historically, some of the greatest literary figures have been both authors and translators. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Gottfired Herder, and Rainer Maria Rilke, to name a few. And just like most other countries, translators are underappreciated and underpaid:

The average literary translator does not earn enough money to make a living. They hardly make more than 15 to 20 Euros per page gross with an average of 100 pages translated per month. Former German President Roman Herzog confirmed this in a speech once: “That someone with one of the most important jobs in today’s cultural life cannot generally make a living is fundamentally outrageous.”

I’m sure the U.S. administration will be making a similar statement any day now . . .

it’s sad to think that a tradition is being abandoned in favor of literary styles that work better in

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