The German Riveter: NEW BOOKS IN GERMAN. AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLOTTE RYLAND and ALYSON COOMBES

As Germany marks thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, New Books in German (NBG) is undergoing its own changes. After ten years leading the project, Charlotte Ryland has moved on from her post of editor. She discusses the last decade with her NBG colleague, Alyson Coombes.

Alyson Coombes: Charlotte, how did you initially get involved with NBG?

Charlotte Ryland: I couldn’t believe my luck when I was appointed to edit New Books in German back in autumn 2009. Until then I’d followed a traditional academic route, gradually coming to focus on German literature. But by that time, two years post-PhD, it had become clear to me that I didn’t want to stay immersed in the academic world; I needed to do something faster-paced, with more immediate impact – something that felt more ‘alive’. I knew about NBG and had met the then editor Rebecca K. Morrison at a conference, and was massively impressed by the project and its potential. I knew I was an outsider candidate as I’d had very little experience of publishing and hadn’t been directly involved previously in NBG, so it felt like a real gift to be handed responsibility for it, and one that I have cherished.

AC: Back in those early days, what were your key aims for the project?

CR: When I joined NBG, I became part of a wonderful network of committed individuals and organisations, all working with a common aim. It seemed to me that furthering that aim was largely about communication; the magazine had to reach the right people, those with the power to make changes in the field, and it had to foster communication and connection. I also wanted to make sure that it remained what it had become over the years: a beautifully curated and written publication that those interested in international literature wanted to read from cover to cover. These dual aims led me to develop NBG into even more of a curated magazine, with themed issues and regular features: interviews with translators and publishers of translated literature; feature articles on new – and more established – authors; and English-language authors writing about their connection to German-language literature. I wanted the magazine itself to become a space where connections were forged.

AC: What do you think have been the major changes within German literature and translated literature in the UK over the last ten years?

CR: I think the key word here is diversity. One of the things that struck me when I joined NBG was the extent to which immigration was influencing and enriching contemporary German-language literature, and this has simply gathered pace. I think this increasing diversity has made my job as advocate of German-language literature easier, because it’s helped with the task of ‘re-branding’ the literature – moving away from quite entrenched views of it as humourless, dense, philosophical and male. These views nonetheless remain extraordinarily persistent, especially in the media, and there’s some way to go before we succeed with this sea-change.

Then there’s the increase in books in languages other than German coming into the translated-literature marketplace, which is a challenge that I’ve been very happy to encounter. Since I’ve been working at NBG there’s been an absolute diversity explosion within translated literature in the UK. My not-at-all-verified-by-any-statistical-research impression is that the increasing numbers of books from countries that had previously had hardly any translations into English has reduced the market share for German-language books in translation. For, while the number of books published is increasing, the number of readers for those books has not increased at the same rate. Throughout my time at NBG I’ve considered myself to be an advocate of all literatures in translation at least as much as a champion of German-language literature, and as such I find this development wholly positive. The next stage is for NBG and its sister organisations to work together more to increase the readership for all translated literature. Time to leave the persistent three (or is it five?) per cent behind.

AC: What are your highlights from the last decade?

CR: The unparalleled highlight of my time as NBG editor has been setting up the Emerging Translators Programme, which I launched in 2011. This project goes to the core of everything I’ve tried to do over these years – celebrating and promoting the art of translation and its craft; fostering networks and connections; carving out space for creative collaborations; and bringing the finest German-language literature into English.

The stand-out title for me over my ten years was Das achte Leben (‘The Eighth Life’) by Nino Haratischvili, which absolutely gripped me for all of its 1,000+ pages (and features strongly in this German Riveter). For me the best books, like Nino’s, find a perfect balance between intelligent and compelling writing – a balance also present in works by Jenny Erpenbeck, Judith Schalansky, Juli Zeh and Iris Hanika.

AC: What will you be doing next?

CR: During my time at NBG I’ve also worked as a Lecturer in German at Oxford University and have become very interested in language learning, the status of multilingualism in this country and the need for advocacy in that field. I’ve recently brought this together with my love of translation – in particular collaborative translation in workshops – to develop ways of advocating multilingualism and intercultural exchange through translation. I’m doing this through a new translation centre that I’ve established in Oxford, the Queen’s College Translation Exchange, which runs translation events for people of all ages but with a focus on schools, and through my directorship of the Stephen Spender Trust. In both of these roles, I’m driven by the conviction that literary translation is the perfect way to engage creatively with other languages and to generate intercultural exchange, regardless of the participants’ linguistic abilities. So my career is taking me into more multilingual worlds, but I’ll always be grateful to NBG, and the original committee who gave me the job, for the huge privilege of working in this world.

AC: Thank you!

WELCOME TO THE NEW NBG EDITOR SARAH HARRINGTON HEMENS

So what’s next for New Books in German? The NBG team are delighted to welcome Sarah Harrington Hemens, who has spent the last few months gathering a wide range of views and ideas on NBG and working hard to develop the future direction of the project. Sarah has an MA (Hons) in German from the University of Edinburgh and has studied and worked in Berlin and Cologne. She interned with New Books in German towards the end of 2017 and has since been writing reader reports on German books for a foreign rights agent.

Sarah has a background in fundraising with trusts and foundations, as well as overseeing and developing print and online publications, and external communications, in a range of fields, including human rights, humanitarian aid, housing and homelessness, and medical research. She is currently the Vice Chair of Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation.

Welcome, Sarah – we are all very much looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for you and New Books in German!

Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.

Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.


Charlotte Ryland works in a variety of ways to promote language learning and literature – as a project manager, editor, translator and lecturer. Formerly Editor of New Books in German, she is Director of the Stephen Spender Trust and runs the Translation Exchange at The Queen’s College Oxford.


Alyson Coombes is a freelance translator and editor. Her co-translation Eichmann’s Executioner by Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler was published in 2017 by The New Press. She works with the European Literature Network and New Books in German to help promote contemporary European literature in the UK.

Category: November 2019 - The German RiveterThe Riveter

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