11 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of New Books in German has been out for a little while, but it’s pretty loaded and deserving of a mention for anyone who might have missed it.

I am delighted to introduce issue 33 of New Books in German: spring is finally springing here in London and our bright yellow plumage captures the vernal mood. After the focus on Berlin and Zurich in our previous issues, we now head to Vienna, Austria’s capital, to savour the diverse literary life of the city on the Danube. Mary Penman’s article on Vienna’s Book Fair and ‘Festival of Reading’, Lesefestwoche, captures the variety of literary offerings throughout the city during one of Austria’s newest and most imaginative literary festivals. Samuel Willcocks’ piece on Vienna’s independent publishing scene showcases some of the forward-thinking and innovative publishers who are a vital force behind Austria’s new literary talent. And we hear about last summer’s inspirational gathering at the European Literature Days, set amid the breathtaking scenery of Spitz an der Donau.

This issue is chock-full of reviews of new work by gifted Austrian writers. The first four novels profiled in these pages, by Eva Menasse, Barbara Frischmuth, Robert Schindel and Michael Köhlmeier, demonstrate the breadth of high quality writing in contemporary Austria. We also feature an interview with Ross Benjamin, the US translator of Austrian literary superstar Clemens J. Setz, revealing fascinating insights into the unique style and composition of his latest novel, Indigo. As a testament to the vibrancy of Austrian literary life, the authors of two of our four debut novels – Anita Augustin and Isabella Straub – were born in Austria, while the remaining two – Hannes Stein and Pyotr Magnus Nedov – were raised there.

The first piece that caught my eye is this conversation between Lucy Renner Jones and Ross Benjamin about Ross’s translation of Clemens Setz’s Indigo.

Lucy Renner Jones: Setz comes across as a collector of oddities – photographs, scraps, bizarre newspaper stories – a geek, as it were, and it seems as if Indigo has grown from this love of the bizarre. You have the feeling that if he hadn’t become a writer, he might have become a professional ladybug torturer or a director for an asylum for the insane . . . is that what you feel too or do you think he’s just brilliantly funny?

Ross Benjamin: Yes, Setz is indeed a collector or curator of unusual anecdotes, neglected footnotes to historical or current events, cultural and pop cultural marginalia, which he incorporates into his fiction as well as his public appearances and interviews. In its role in his work, however, all this is more than just bric-a-brac. On one level, it has something of the encyclopedic abundance of someone like David Foster Wallace in his impulse to do justice to the mushrooming information environment of contemporary life. It’s at least a similarly expansive sense of what literature can be and what can be literature – which does not exclude all the random bits that currently constitute our media-saturated perception of the world.

LRJ: I don’t think there’s anything to compare to this novel. Perhaps Bret Easton Ellis was called to mind in Setz’s meticulous attention to detail and the unempathetic, ‘autistic’ character of Robert. Are there any US writers who do what Setz does?

RB: Well, I mentioned David Foster Wallace, but only in reference to one aspect of Setz’s writing. Certain elements of the novel remind me of the films of Terry Gilliam – its mix of the imaginative, the comic and the paranoid, the uncanny atmosphere and the characters’ disorienting confrontations with the absurd and unmasterable. There’s no doubt Setz has read his DeLillo and Pynchon, though he is confident enough not to ape their voices; he merely takes for granted the far-reaching terrain they’ve claimed for fiction. But I’ve never understood, at least from a literary standpoint, why the Englishspeaking publishing world seems to require a foreign author to be comparable to some native one, or at least someone already in English. What makes Clemens Setz so fascinating is that he is Clemens Setz. Setz is that rare thing, an original.

For anyone who’s intrigued—which I’m sure all of you are, now—Norton is going to publish this book in the near future. (We’ll definitely review it as soon as possible.)

*

Another article of note in this issue is the one on Vienna’s thriving independent publishing scene:

Another house experimenting with rewrites and remakes is Bernhard Salomon’s Labor Verlag, just around the corner from St Stephen’s Cathedral. I left the tourist crowds behind, climbing worn stone steps into the palace of a nineteenth-century merchant prince, and heard the colourful story of how Salomon ‘founded a publishing house by accident,’ as he puts it. The author of six novels, Salomon felt that Austrian publishing had lost sight of the narrative drive. When a brothel owner gave him €3,000 seed funding, he published two successful short story anthologies, and then a breakthrough title – Elfriede Vavrik’s autobiographical Nacktbadestrand (‘Nudist Beach’), about an octogenarian’s sex life, which stayed on the bestseller lists for weeks on end in both Germany and Austria. Salomon then entered into a joint venture with a major German house so that he could split the Labor list off as a dedicated venue for new novels. [. . .]

Indeed, Vienna has long been a city for writers from all over Central and Eastern Europe, and the city’s Exilliteratur Preis is the equivalent of Germany’s Chamisso Prize for immigrant authors. Two of these young newcomers publish with Edition Atelier: Ilir Ferra with Rauchschatten (‘Shadows of Smoke’), set in Albania in the totalitarian 1980s, and Melica Bešlija with Sarajevo in der Geliebten (‘Sarajevo in the Woman She Loves’), a story of same-sex love in Bosnia after the war. Atelier’s Jorghi Poll told me that ‘the kind of authors who could never get noticed in Germany have that chance in Austria.’

10 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: W.W. Norton

Why This Book Should Win: Two reasons: 1) during Thomas’s reading tour, three consecutive events were disrupted by a streaker, a woman passing out and smashing a glass table, and a massive pillow fight amid a Biblical thunderstorm; 2) the phone number.

The following piece is written by Erin Edmison who is a partner at Edmison/Harper Literary Scouting and worked on Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which beat out Eugenides & Co. for the NBCC award in fiction.

Thomas Pletzinger is a romantic. He’s not a Romantic; the language of his 2011 debut novel Funeral for a Dog is more observational than emotional, or maybe it’s observational about emotion, in the way of that midcentury German master, Max Frisch (ripples of Montauk lap at this novel’s edge). Then again, Pletzinger’s book feels totally modern (if not Modern). The characters’ central drama has to do with The Way Some of Us Live Now: over-educated, burdened by choice, willing to throw out the cultural roadmaps, but unsure how to draw new ones.

Daniel Mandelkern (his surname translates to “almond seed,” and is also the German word for the amygdala, the part of the brain most responsible for processing memory and emotion) is at a crossroads. He’s left his doctorate in the German-sounding field of ethnography (we would call him a cultural anthropologist) to write feature pieces for the Arts & Culture section of the Hamburg newspaper. His wife Elisabeth is his editor at the paper, and it’s starting to chafe: “(since I started working for Elisabeth’s department, our marriage has become more professional).” When she sends him on what he considers to be a ridiculous assignment— fly down to Italy’s Lake Lugano to interview Dirk Svensson, a mega-bestselling but reclusive children’s book author, and fly back that night—Daniel knows exactly what she’s punishing him for. She wants a child; Daniel’s resistant.

The specter of that phantom trio (Daniel, Elisabeth, Baby Mandelkern) is only one of a series of threesomes—both romantic and situational— that occur throughout the book, down to Svensson’s three-legged dog. The three-part arithmetic of one person choosing between two options leads to several of the book’s dilemmas, and they’re ones many of us face: I could live here, or there; I could love this woman, or that one; I could have this kind of life, or one completely different. All is not possible; one must choose. When Mandelkern arrives on the shores of Lake Lugano, he’s surprised to find he’s not the only person coming for a visit: a fetching Finnish doctor named Tuuli and her young son also clamber into the boat when Svensson comes to pick them up. And contrary to the dossier given to him by his wife before the trip, Svensson doesn’t live alone, but with a curly-haired American photographer named Kiki. But it’s when Mandelkern unlocks a trunk in the bedroom to discover reams of unpublished stories that he realizes who is really the guest in this house on the Italian lake, more present because of his absence: the departed Felix, who seems to have been the glue holding this motley crew together. What was meant to be a reporting trip of a few hours stretches to days as Mandelkern pieces together the relationship between Svensson, Tuuli, and Felix, a series of tales that starts in Brazil, continues in New York, and finishes in Italy.

But they don’t really finish in Italy, do they? Mandelkern must go home; Tulli, too. And despite having an ending that wraps around to the beginning, Funeral for a Dog, left me feeling unfinished, too, in the best of ways. But aren’t we all? We get fuller and fuller of stories and memories in this life, but we’re never finished, until we are.

Click here for an interview with Pletzinger and Ross Benjamin conducted by Diana Thow.

And watch the reading interrupted by the pillow fight by clicking below:

25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brady Evan Walker on Joseph Roth’s Job, which was recently retranslated by Ross Benjamin and published by Archipelago Books.

Brady Evan Walker is a writer who splits his time unequally between New Orleans and Brooklyn, constantly on the run from the horrors of NY winters and LA (Louisiana, not L.A.) summers. He blogs infrequently at The Hole in Thin Air.

Joseph Roth is one of the greats of European Literature. A number of his books—including the epic Radetzsky’s March—are available from Overlook. Job was first published (and translated into English) in 1930, and was long overdue for a new translation. For more information on Ross’s translation and the history of this book, I’d highly recommend listening to this interview that Bill Marx of PRI’s The World Books did with Ross last fall.

Here’s the opening of Brady’s review:

Job, recently published by the consistently incredible Archipelago Press in a new translation by Ross Benjamin, is the first, and still only, book by Joseph Roth—a household-canon-grade writer in Europe—I have read. (I did have to get this review out in a timely fashion, and his other, more infamous masterpiece, Radetzsky’s March, is over 500 pages and sounds like an Austro-Hungarian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which reading would have undoubtedly delayed this review.)

Job is one of those lyrically imbued novels packed with poetic turns of phrase and unwieldy sentences, slipping, slaloming, galloping and tumbling by with such rhythmic intent that it’s hard, as a writer, not to underline, annotate and copy down at least one thing on any given page. Joseph Roth, a widely-traveled journalist, undoubtedly found in the novel a place to let his verbosely winding hair down.

When we meet Mendel Singer, the “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” he is a mediocre children’s bible teacher with a dull home and emotionally distant family. When his fourth child is born sickly and skeletally contorted at the opening of the novel, Singer’s average life tips toward the downhill slope. It’s interesting that Roth, himself a Galician-born, shtetl-raised Jew, used village life as the basis for his retelling, where the original Job’s great wealth and influence had no place. Benjamin’s afterword sketches a brief biography, wherein he says of Roth: “[I]t is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike the writer as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life . . . prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.”

You can read the full review by clicking here.

Job
25 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Job, recently published by the consistently incredible Archipelago Press in a new translation by Ross Benjamin, is the first, and still only, book by Joseph Roth—a household-canon-grade writer in Europe—I have read. (I did have to get this review out in a timely fashion, and his other, more infamous masterpiece, Radetzsky’s March, is over 500 pages and sounds like an Austro-Hungarian version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of which reading would have undoubtedly delayed this review.)

Job is one of those lyrically imbued novels packed with poetic turns of phrase and unwieldy sentences, slipping, slaloming, galloping and tumbling by with such rhythmic intent that it’s hard, as a writer, not to underline, annotate and copy down at least one thing on any given page. Joseph Roth, a widely-traveled journalist, undoubtedly found in the novel a place to let his verbosely winding hair down.

When we meet Mendel Singer, the “pious, God-fearing and ordinary . . . everyday Jew,” he is a mediocre children’s bible teacher with a dull home and emotionally distant family. When his fourth child is born sickly and skeletally contorted at the opening of the novel, Singer’s average life tips toward the downhill slope. It’s interesting that Roth, himself a Galician-born, shtetl-raised Jew, used village life as the basis for his retelling, where the original Job’s great wealth and influence had no place. Benjamin’s afterword sketches a brief biography, wherein he says of Roth: “[I]t is no wonder that the centuries-old figure of the migrant Jew who is nowhere at home would strike the writer as an embodiment of the peripatetic nature of postwar modern life . . . prompting him to evoke the trope of Jewish exile in Job.”

The novel is divided between two sections, the first in Zuchnow (the Singers’ native home) and the second, America, where the Singers quickly immigrate in an effort to protect their promiscuous daughter from herself and her trio of horny Cossacks.

While the novel sees Mendel Singer through a series of misfortunes (a son gone missing in the Russian Revolution, a son dead at war, a wife dead of grief, &c., &c.), the center of the novel is Mendel and his wife’s relationship to their crippled son, Menuchim, whom they leave with friends in Zuchnow when they immigrate, thinking him too sick to endure the trip. Three quarters through the novel, Mendel finally gives up on God and humanity, then mopes through his days, more or less sapped of the will to live but for the hope of seeing his Menuchim.

The virtue of the novel lies in the synchronism between its lyrical rhythm and its portrayal of quotidian misery. In simple lines like “Today the dead seemed deader than usual,” or “Nothing happened. Yet infinite things seemed to want to happen,” serve as punctuating stops between epic flights like:

She neglected her duty at the stove, the soup boiled over, the clay pots cracked, the pans rusted, the greenish shimmering glasses shattered with a harsh crash, the chimney of the petroleum lamp was darkened with soot, the wick was charred to a miserable stub, the dirt of many soles and many weeks coated the floorboards, the lard melted away in the pot, the withered buttons fell from the children’s shirts like leaves before the winter.

What a sentence! What a dully unpleasant (yet so beautiful-sounding!) existence.

Though Roth has no compunction about cruelty to his characters, there are certainly moments in which he allowed bits of saccharine fairy tale-telling to creep. (In the afterword, Benjamin reveals that Roth once confessed that he couldn’t have written the ending had he not been drunk.) (NB: Roth died of alcoholism.) But because the novel works on such an entrenched psychological level, digging deeply into its characters, the sudden turn of fortune doesn’t elicit that deus ex romantic comedy sigh of frustration that might come of any sudden, punctuating upswing, rather I, at the very least, found myself turning the pages, curious how this bedraggled and tortured man would react to something good, not so much interested in the odd event itself. And it was all still as compelling and sweetly limned as all of that bad.

16 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Jennifer Bratovich’s piece on Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, available from W. W. Norton in Ross Benjamin’s translation.

I’ve been holding onto this review for months, waiting first for the book to come out, then for Ross and Thomas to come here, then . . . I simply forgot about it. Better late than never though, especially since Jennifer Bratovich—a former student—really, really dug this book.

Anyway, for more Three Percent love for Funeral and Thomas and Ross, you can read this interview from the Iowa Review or check out this video of their event on campus.

Or, you can read Jennifer’s review:

Thomas Pletzinger doesn’t waste any time. In the first paragraph of his stunning debut novel Funeral for a Dog, his central character Daniel Mandelkern tells exactly what to expect: “I’m sending you seven postcards and a stack of paper, XXX pages. This stack is about me. And about memory and the future.” Sure enough, the “stack of paper”—which includes interview transcripts, drawings, and facsimiles a la Johnathan Safran Foer minus some of the schmaltz—is a fresh, vigorous read that nimbly weaves together the anxieties of the (real and reconstructed) past and the unknown, dubious future.

Mandelkern is an ethnologist/journalist whose professional and personal life are under increasing strain (his wife Elisabeth is also his editor, and they have been arguing). The novel finds him leaving Hamburg on assignment to interview Dirk Svensson, a peculiar author of children’s books who lives on a lake with his three legged dog. During his stay, Mandelkern stumbles upon a manuscript of Svensson’s revealing a complicated mix of people, events, and circumstances.

Click here to read the full piece.

16 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thomas Pletzinger doesn’t waste any time. In the first paragraph of his stunning debut novel Funeral for a Dog, his central character Daniel Mandelkern tells exactly what to expect: “I’m sending you seven postcards and a stack of paper, XXX pages. This stack is about me. And about memory and the future.” Sure enough, the “stack of paper”—which includes interview transcripts, drawings, and facsimiles a la Johnathan Safran Foer minus some of the schmaltz—is a fresh, vigorous read that nimbly weaves together the anxieties of the (real and reconstructed) past and the unknown, dubious future.

Mandelkern is an ethnologist/journalist whose professional and personal life are under increasing strain (his wife Elisabeth is also his editor, and they have been arguing). The novel finds him leaving Hamburg on assignment to interview Dirk Svensson, a peculiar author of children’s books who lives on a lake with his three legged dog. During his stay, Mandelkern stumbles upon a manuscript of Svensson’s revealing a complicated mix of people, events, and circumstances.

Pletzinger is careful never to reveal too much to us at once. Structurally, the novel alternates between a chapter of Svensson’s narrative manuscript and a handful of Mandelkern’s observations and reflections, told in easily digestible, paragraph-long chunks with clever titles. Theses parallel stories unfold and converge, overlapping and slowly piecing together the histories of Pletzinger’s characters.

It is this process of uncovering and revealing that makes the novel so interesting to read. It is up to us to start seeing relationships between the smallest details (for example, golden bobby pins). Mandelkern admits he is obsessed with “making connections where there are no connections”. As Mandelkern introduces us to the details of his life with Elisabeth and his investigation into Svensson’s world, we are given so little information that we are left on our own to decide exactly how these details fit together:

We had no mission outside of ourselves (I found her red hair in the corners of my apartment). From our words and thoughts we designed streets and moved more purposefully, maybe more meaningfully, in them (she showed me the remote map quadrants), we used our bodies (I went beyond my boundaries).

This caffeinated, contemplative style propels the novel forward through the longer portions of Svensson’s manuscript (which stays truer to traditional form, but still preserves Pletzinger’s brisk, smooth style).

And within the larger context of the novel, what is missing seems to be just as important as what is present. Furthermore, as Mandelkern reads Svensson’s manuscript, he learns that only a fraction of it is true—another fraction is completely fictional, and the remainder is just a series of attempts at building some kind of cohesive, understandable connection between the real and the reconstructed. Both authors struggle desperately with the burden of stitching together and making sense of their histories, because as Svensson notes, “What you don’t hold on to disappears”. This fear of impending loss seems to drive the novel as it drives Svensson and Mandelkern to complete their work, to make sense of their histories and to move forward past them.

That said, readers have to pay attention. Pletzinger’s characters are linked in specific ways. By the end of the novel, when everything is being pulled together in one large chunk, it takes a moment to recall everything that was in Svensson’s plot-heavy manuscript. This book is packed with details that come back again and again. That one brief sentence snuck somewhere in one of Mandelkern’s jotted down paragraphs that you will never be able to find again, offhandedly mentioning a painting on the wall? Probably important. And such is the sad exuberance of Funeral for a Dog—a beautiful self-referential story about love, longing, and loss that should probably be read at least twice to fully appreciate.

9 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks back we held our final Reading the World Conversation Series event of the season, featuring Thomas Pletzinger (author of Funeral for a Dog) and German translator Ross Benjamin (translator of Funeral for a Dog, Roth’s Job, and others).

The event was really interesting—Thomas and Ross have a great rapport—and was punctuated by a pillow fight turned thunderstorm in the middle . . . Which is only the third reading of Thomas’s that got a little crazy. First there was a group of streakers in the library. Then an audience member passed out due to the queasily detailed section he read (she broke her jaw). And now, Rochester brings soaked students pounding each other with wet pillows. Yes.

22 April 11 | N. J. Furl | Comments



Our final Reading the World event of the spring is coming up next Wednesday, April 27, in Rochester. (This event is not to be confused, by the way, with another that we have scheduled quickly thereafter on May 2. That event is our contribution to the PEN World Voices Tour, and we’ll be posting all the info on that one forthwith . . .) This RTW spectacular will include Thomas Pletzinger—German author of Funeral for a Dog fame—and Ross Benjamin—the award-winning German-to-English translator of Funeral for a Dog. All the good details are below.


Reading the World Conversation Series:
Thomas Pletzinger & Ross Benjamin

APRIL 27, 2011
Wednesday, 6:00 p.m
Welles-Brown Room, Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
(Free and open to the public.
Free parking passes available at information booth.)

Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog received a great deal of praise when it was first released in Germany. It was compared to John Irving (for storytelling) and to Max Frisch (for sensibility and humor), and he even won the prestigious Uwe-Johnson Prize.

Soon thereafter, Pletzinger landed a deal with W.W. Norton to publish the English language edition, translated by award-winner Ross Benjamin. The novel has received attention for its global settings (Germany, Brazil, U.S., Italy), innovative structure, and mixture of intelligence and wit.

Pletzinger comes from a new generation of writers who are less concerned with writing about Germany’s past and whose interests and influences are more global. This reading and conversation will focus on this new generation of writers in Germany and what makes their writing so vibrant and unique on the current stage of world literature.

Visit this event on Facebook

(This event is presented by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)

15 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog (translated from the German by Ross Benjamin) has been getting a ton of great attention recently. It was praised in the New York Times and a Powells.com Review-a-Day. The mysterious forces behind the iBookstore chose it as the “Book of the Week.” We’re going to be discussing it in my class next Tuesday. And Ross and Thomas will be here in Rochester on Wednesday, April 27th for the final event of this season’s Reading the World Conversation Series.

And, as the reason for this post, an interview by Diana Thow with Thomas and Ross is now available on the newly redesigned Iowa Review website. It’s such an awesome, fun, fascinating conversation, that I’m going to quote a huge chunk of it (hopefully all at the Iowa Review are down with this . . . BTW, everyone reading this should subscribe) that’s related to the translator-author relationship:

Diana Thow: Can you give me an example of some of the questions you would ask?

Ross Benjamin: While translating I find that when I want to ask an author a question it rarely consists of wanting to know what a word means. A dictionary can tell you what something means, but if you’re able to talk with the author the most important material you can gain is at the textural level. How the author is using language and what they are doing with that language that is new and unexpected. This is perhaps not completely penetrable upon a first read, not without a more involved discussion. It took a lot of time for Thomas to address all my questions.

Thomas Pletzinger: The question about Heimwehtourismus for instance.

RB: Yes, that one was never really resolved. The word is Heimwehtourismus, which is used in a specific way in the novel, and it has a specific meaning that’s difficult for anyone who’s not familiar with the German context. A Heimwehtourist is a tourist, literally a homesickness-tourist—it’s one word.

DT: You translated this as “nostalgia tourist,” if I remember correctly.

RB: In one place I did, yes. The word describes somebody who travels to their former or their ancestral homeland out of nostalgia, and it’s often closely associated with tourists who visit their former homes in what was once east Germany but is now Poland or the Czech Republic, but it has an even broader application than that. In Thomas’s novel there is a scene in which a character travels back to a former home in the east, and the word is used there, but there are also places in which the longing for home is used more metaphorically. There are characters who are searching all over the world for a sort of home, and they are called Heimwehtourists as well… so “nostalgia” doesn’t really capture it. Often I used a contextual solution, and occasionally I think I might have added allusions to clarify. But yes, that was one question that went on forever.

TP: While we’re talking, I’m looking at my e-mail folder and in this folder it says: Ross Benjamin, 714 e-mails.

RB: Right. And some of those e-mails contain a hundred questions each.

TP: Or when we started this whole process and had the issue with the Badeinsel?

RB: Right, that’s never been adequately resolved. So, when you’re swimming in a lake sometimes there’s a wooden thing with a ladder on it that you can swim out to climb on and jump off.

TP: And there’s Astroturf on it sometimes…

RB: Yeah, sometimes there’s Astroturf. Everyone calls it a different thing. What do you call it?

DT: Uh.

(a pause, Thomas laughs)

DT: A dock? A swimming dock?

RB: Yeah, a lot of people start with dock, but when you look up these terms it gets problematic. Some people call it a raft, which I think of something that floats away, or a float, or a floating dock, but docks are always attached to the land. The definitions aren’t very precise, and then websites that sell these things call them all sorts of different names. Everyone still disagrees on what the right solution is. We ended up with floating dock. And I think that’s because the copyeditor was really convinced. But I was on one of these things on Cape Cod a few weeks ago, and I was talking to my mother about it and she said, “We called that the raft all throughout my childhood.” There’s a book called A Yellow Raft in Blue Water with a picture of one on the cover….

TP: You see how he works. His whole family is involved. He’s in a bathing suit on vacation and he still thinks about it. Everyone around him is involved. The issue with the Badeinsel was one of the first things that my editor at Norton heard about the book before reading it, and he was thinking, “Oh god, here we go.” It’s on the second page of the novel and we’re already e-mailing fifty times back and forth about that damn thing in the water.

But I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a translator to have someone like me who can read the English translation. Maybe it’s useful, but I can think of better things than having someone looking over your shoulder. But I was so interested to watch Ross at work on my book, so for me it was amazing for me to see how—what’s the word for akribisch, Ross?

RB: Meticulous?

TP: Yes, this is the word precisely. Akribisch, meticulous. I always thought I knew my book. I thought I knew what I was doing, and of all the people in the world, even my own editor, even myself…. I think Ross knows the book better. Maybe he doesn’t know the back story as well as I do, but of all the people in the world, he knows the actual text on the page best. And I find it fascinating that someone who hasn’t written the book would be able to find so many mistakes, or slight mistakes, logical mistakes….

RB: These were tiny, tiny, tiny things.

TP: Yes, tiny things. But Ross would spot everything. For instance, in the hardback German version of the book a woman buys a pizza and it comes in a plastic bag. New York pizza isn’t delivered in a plastic bag, it comes in a box. I am an idiot, how could I have thought that pizza is delivered in a plastic bag? And then she hangs it on a Türklinke!

RB: A door handle.

TP: Right, a door handle?! There are no door handles in New York! They’re doorknobs. So we rewrote the whole thing.

RB: There’s also the problem of hanging the pizza….

TP: Yeah, yeah.

RB: But all of these things a reader wouldn’t notice, they would read right over it.

TP: Right. My editor didn’t catch this, but you did. While Ross was translating the book into English, I was working on editing the German paperback (btb-Random House, 2010). So now the paperback is totally different from the hardcover book.

RB: What’s happened is that the paperback consists of a translation of my translation of his book. So the paperback is actually Funeral for a Dog translated back into German by Thomas Pletzinger.

TP: And it’s much better than the first edition.

31 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Bill Marx’s new PRI’s The World World Books podcast features an interview with Ross Benjamin, recipient of this year’s Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize for Speak, Nabokov and translator of Joseph Roth’s Job, which is due out in November from Archipelago Books.

It’s clear from this interview that Ross not only is a great translator, but also an amazing reader, and after listening to this, I feel like I need to read more of Roth’s works . . . starting with this one. (And his comments on why books need to be retranslated—not always because the original translation is flawed, but sometimes because the new translation can enrich the work—are pretty interesting.)

From the Archipelago website:

Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, a pious, destitute Eastern-European Jew and children’s Torah teacher whose faith is tested at every turn. His youngest son seems to be incurably disabled, one of his older sons joins the Russian Army, the other deserts to America, and his daughter is running around with a Cossack. When the parents flee with their daughter to America, further blows of fate await them. In this modern fable based on the Biblical story of Job, Mendel Singer witnesses the collapse of his world, experiences unbearable suffering and loss, and ultimately gives up all hope and curses God, only to be saved by a miraculous reversal of fortune.

And speaking of Archipelago, their Fall 2010 catalog arrived yesterday, and as always, they’re bringing out some great books, including:

Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, which is “a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive.” (Check out this recent RTW Podcast for more info on Stone Upon Stone and Bill’s translation.)

and

My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, which is “a Bengali Decameron for the twentieth century.” (Although much shorter.) The novella takes place in a railway station where four strangers are trapped overnight. “The sight of a young loving couple prompts them to share their own experiences of the vagaries of the human heart with each other in a story cycle that is in turn melancholy, playful, wise, and heart-wringing.”

and

The Chukchi Bible by Yuri Rytkheu, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, which is “a collection of the myths and tales of Yuri Rytkheu’s own shaman father. The stories compose both a moving history of the Chukchi people who inhabit the shores of the Bering Sea, and a beautiful cautionary tale, rife with conflict, human drama, and humor.”

9 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week I posted about the Wolff Symposium 2010 podcasts from BEZ.

Anyway, the one recording that was missing is now available, so you can check out The Art of Literary Translation with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Ross Benjamin, Krishna Winston, and Breon Mitchell.

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know I’ve written it before, and will do so again, but the Wolff Symposium is one of the absolute best annual translation-related gatherings. It’s held every June and is centered around the awarding of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, which is given to the best translation from German into English published in the previous year. All genres are eligible, but translators can only win once.

Anyway, the symposium took place a few weeks back and was absolutely amazing. Great panels, wonderful to see Ross Benjamin receive the award, very nice tribute to Breon Mitchell re: his new translation of The Tin Drum. (I maybe shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve never read this, although every time I see Breon I swear that it’ll be the next book I pick up . . . And it will be! Soon. Soon . . .)

I was planning on writing up some notes and thoughts and whatever from the day of panels, but well, it’s been a busy time and besides, WBEZ was there to record the whole symposium. And although I can’t imagine many people listening to all of these podcasts, they’re a much better record of what was discussed than anything I could babble on about . . .

If you do decide to listen, you might want to do so in order—at least when it comes to the “Increased Interest in Foreign Fiction?” and “Cultivating Audiences” panels, otherwise my random 15-minute speech at the beginning of the latter panel will make next to no sense . . .

So:

First off is the tribute to Breon Mitchell that included an interview with NY Times journalist David Streitfeld.

(There was another panel with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Krishna Winston, Ross Benjamin, and Breon Mitchell, but I can’t find the podcast . . . Which sucks! This was a great conversation . . . Maybe I’m just missing something? If anyone knows where this is, please e-mail me.)

Then the panel with Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Daniel Slager of Milkweek, Jeremy Davies of Dalkey Archive Press on An Increased Interest in Foreign Literature?

And then the Cultivating Audiences – Particular Examples, Viable Models? panel that started with my rant and ended with all of us (Susan Harris of Words Without Borders, Susan Bernofsky, and Annie Janusch) talking about technology and reaching readers . . . while my phone buzzed with the dozen or so text messages I received during that panel . . .

Finally, we wrapped up with a contentious argument about Amazon.com discussion about Publishing Literary Translations and New Publishing Technologies. Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Henry Carrigan of Northwestern University Press, and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op were on this panel, which was a great way to end the day, having moved from a grand appreciation of Breon and the craft of translation to the dirty details of the book business and how all the various segments always feel like their getting screwed. Speaking of screwing, this panel also had one of the funniest exchanges of the day:

Jeff: “Being a bookseller, it’s kind of an unrequited love affair with books where you know that you’re going to get screwed.”

Chad: “That’s not really an unrequited . . . It’s actually just a love affair.”

This then led to a series of sexually charged double entendres . . . Man, those end of the day panels—brilliant!

28 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just got an e-mail from the Goethe Institut in Chicago announcing that Ross Benjamin has been awarded this year’s Wolff Translation Prize. Here’s the official press release:

The jury for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize is please to award the prize for 2009 to Ross Benjamin for his translation of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, published by Verso. The jury finds that this remarkably musical translation reads beautifully, and brings to English-speaking readers an important study of a writer of world stature whose works cry out for skilled exegesis. Benjamin’s translation is elegant, witty, even playful, doing justice to both the German original and the book’s subject. The translator reveals a sophisticated understanding of literary criticism and his own sure sense of literary style.

Congrats, Ross! And Speak, Nabokov sounds fascinating:

On the eve of the controversial, posthumous publication of The Original of Laura, Michael Maar follows his critically acclaimed The Two Lolitas with a revealing new perspective on Vladimir Nabokov’s life and work. Hunting down long-hidden clues in the novels, and using the themes that run through Nabokov’s fiction to illuminate the life that produced them, Maar constructs a compelling psychological and philosophical portrait. Characteristically graceful and engaging, Speak, Nabokov offers a vital new perspective on the twentieth-century master.

Ross will be officially honored at the annual Wolff Symposium in Chicago, which will take place on June 21st and 22nd.

27 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Love German Books is a very interesting interview with Ross Benjamin about his translation of Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew for the Melville House Art of the Contemporary Novella series.

Ross, tell us about the book . . .

It’s an account of a pogrom against a Jewish family by their neighbors, who had been their longtime friends, in a fictitious village called Jedenew near the Polish-Lithuanian border during the German invasion. This horrific incident is recounted in the first-person plural — “we” — and the group of characters indicated by this pronoun expands and contracts at various points, but the point-of-view of these passages is aligned with a single female protagonist who remains nameless. During the onslaught, she and her sister Anna hide in their unfinished treehouse in the woods, where they witness the destruction of their home. Having lost their loved ones, they recall the events of their truncated childhood and especially stories that have been told to them by their father and their older brother. Different voices, tales, and memories interweave as the narrative moves forward and backward in time, the scenes and speakers often shifting unexpectedly in the middle of a sentence. The novel never departs from the present tense, even when this means violating grammatical convention. The effect is a sense of simultaneity that heightens the harrowing loss at the heart of the novel.

[. . .]

You’ve kept the very difficult grammatical structure (all present tense, confusing sentence structure) more or less untouched, as far as I can tell. Were you tempted to take a more interventionist approach? If not, why not?

I felt strongly that the exclusive use of the present tense was an essential feature of the novel, so I was never tempted to alter it. Even when German grammar would usually require another tense, whether past, future, or indirect discourse, the novelist stayed in the present, and if this was at times awkward in the original, the awkwardness was clearly a deliberate effect. So I reproduced this to the best of my abilities in the translation. Of course, this posed a challenge. Overall, I had the impression that the German language was more conducive to Vennemann’s technique than English, for both the historical present and the ability to refer to future events in the present tense are available, conventional options in German more often than in English. So at times something that was only somewhat jarring in the original would be more intensely jarring in English. But I thought this still reflected the author’s aesthetic better than to restore grammatical fluidity and familiarity would have. Though I tried to keep the level of estrangement close to that of the original, at times some degree of enhanced awkwardness in the English version was inescapable. But since the device was used as a grammatical Verfremdungseffekt in the German version, this felt justified. As for the complexity of the syntax, some degree of confusion is endemic to the novel. Again, such intricate, long sentences are less unusual in German than in English, but my rationale for retaining them was similar to my approach to tense. The labyrinthine nature of the sentences in the original was intentionally disorienting, and to efface this by composing more easily readable sentences would have been to dispense with a key aspect of the experience of this novel.

....
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