New Books in German is a unique twice-yearly publication that provides publishers and editors around the world with insights on the best of German-language literature. NBG is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year (2016) and recently launched a gorgeous new website. I spoke to editor Charlotte Ryland and Jen Calleja, acting editor for the last two issues, about their personal encounters with German literature, their thoughts on the current state of German fiction in the UK and their hopes for the future.
Can you recall your first (or an early) encounter with German literature?
CR: Oddly, I’ve never really thought about my very first encounter. It was probably at school – the usual stock of A Level texts like Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Arsonists) and Andorra by Max Frisch. I think that perhaps a greater impression was made by a text that I studied as part of my English Literature A Level – Brecht’s Mother Courage. We had a very trendy young English teacher, and I recall that studying something in translation felt quite transgressive and exciting. And I guess that being able to talk and write about it in English, as opposed to my limited German, made it a more inspiring experience.
JC: Apart from trying to tackle a page of Kafka during my A Levels, it was taking a year to read Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser (The Reader) during my undergraduate degree in modern literature with only what I would call ‘minor German skills’. The process of half-understanding, half-code breaking/guessing was fascinating and addictive and I ended up advancing my German just through reading German literature.
What attracted you to New Books in German?
CR: I remember the first time that I came across a copy of NBG, at a postgraduate seminar at Queen Mary in London, and it made an enormous impression. It opened up German literature for me while, at the time, I felt my PhD was closing it down. Then in 2008 I met Rebecca K. Morrison, NBG’s then editor, at an academic conference, learnt more about the project and was utterly fascinated. When the position of editor came up I couldn’t believe my luck, and saw it as the perfect opportunity to combine all my interests. It proved to be the best career decision I’ve made to date: I still love the day-to-day work, and it has broadened my horizons immensely.
JC: About two years before I interned and subsequently became acting editor at NBG I saw a post online advertising the NBG Emerging Translators Programme competition, leading me to the website. It sounds strange but I just hadn’t really thought about how much contemporary German literature was out there – at school and in everyday life people tend to only know the classics – and that being a translator of literature was even ‘a thing’. I entered the competition, didn’t make the shortlist, but then a couple of weird acts of fate happened. I got a job as press and public relations coordinator at the Goethe-Institut London and found out that NBG was based there, so put myself forward to intern with Charlotte. The other strange thing was that the text that I translated for the Emerging Translators Programme was the opening of Gregor Hens’ Nicotine, which ended up being my second ever published book translation.
Is your job of encouraging UK publishers to commission translations getting easier or harder?
JC: I think the atmosphere has been very positive and encouraging for the last few years. Now, with this open ‘turning away from other nations and cultures’, there is a group of people even more fired up than before to fight this through one of the best ways you can: by sharing stories.
CR: I’m just returning from a year’s leave, so it will be very interesting to see how the mood has changed during that time. As Jen says, the atmosphere over recent years has been positive, generated by groups of people and organisations working together successfully. There was a real sense a year or so ago that the cultural scenes of the UK and US were becoming less insular and monolingual. I’m not sure where we are with that now, but I’m glad that Jen has found people ready to fight, and I’m looking forward to joining in!
What are the main obstacles to getting more UK readers interested in German fiction?
CR: Where to begin? I’ve felt for a long time that the main obstacles lie with publishers rather than readers. There are numerous excellent exceptions – publishers who are championing literature in translation, treating it and marketing it as brilliant writing rather than writing by foreigners – but there is a hesitation amongst some of the more mainstream publishers to do that, fuelled by an anxiety that their readers will be turned off by foreign literature. I’m going to out myself as a regular Kindle user now – with the excuse that I’ve spent a lot of this year with a sleeping baby in at least one arm… But it’s been an eye-opener in terms of Amazon and their marketing. Every time I switch it on, an advert for a new book appears, which I think is always one that’s been published by Amazon, and the name of the author is very rarely Anglo-American. I’ve been wondering, in various sleep-deprived moments, whether Amazon is actually doing good work in normalising foreign literatures in this way, by never differentiating between translated and original fiction.
In your time at NBG, what do you see as your biggest success?
CR: I’ve been really proud of the networks that NBG has generated and been part of. The world of literary translation has really come to life over the past decade or so, with a huge amount of support available for those new to the profession and those more established. I set up our Emerging Translators Programme and our internships, and I’ve been so pleased with how these have created their own networks as well as fed into the wider ones, such as the Emerging Translators Network.
JC: I got to organise and oversee the 20th anniversary celebrations. It was very satisfying to witness our wider network’s enthusiasm and support for the project and to meet new people that we hope to remain in contact with.
What’s your favourite book featured by NBG in the last year?
CR: I’m going to cheat and choose a book we reviewed 18 months ago, before I went on leave. Das achte Leben (The Eighth Life) by Nino Haratischwili is hands down the best thing I’ve read in a very long time, and I can’t wait to see the English translation. It’s out next year with Scribe, and translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (both graduates of our Emerging Translators Programme!).
JC: I haven’t read it yet but I’m intrigued by Swiss author Michelle Steinbeck’s German Book Prize-longlisted Mein Vater war ein Mann an Land und im Wasser ein Walfisch (My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water). It’s been described as a violent, Freudian, trippy fairytale. I’m going to read it while away in Zurich in December.
Can you name a German novel you would most like to translate or one you wish you had translated?
JC: Absolutely! It would be one or all of famous German stage actor Joachim Meyerhoff’s memoir trilogy. They are funny and dark and beautifully written. I think there’s a fear with memoirs that if people don’t know the person writing beforehand then it won’t be of interest, but these books are incredibly moving, magical and like nothing else I’ve ever read. You really get the feeling that you know him and every member of his family.
CR: It would be anything by Iris Hanika, I think – a German author who has yet to make it into English, but really must. She writes witty, moving, intelligent novels that change how you think about the world. They’d be a real challenge to translate, but a very worthwhile one.
Who are the most exciting authors writing in German today?
JC: Juli Zeh, Abbas Khider, Eva Menasse, Karen Duve, Joachim Meyerhoff, Jenny Erpenbeck.
CR: All of Jen’s, plus Iris Hanika, Nino Haratischwili and Clemens J. Setz. And Lutz Seiler. And Ulrike Almut Sandig. And I’d better stop there!
What are your hopes for the next 20 years of NBG?
JC: I hope that I stay involved as much as possible!
CR: I hope she does too! And that NBG continues to work more closely with our colleagues in other literatures. There’s a great energy and a huge amount of work being done to bring literary works from across the globe to an English-speaking readership, and I think (dare I say it) that we are stronger together.
By Judith Vonberg for #ELNetGerman