It all began when our literature team at the Deutsche Welle asked ourselves the question: why are so few German-language writers translated into English? Exploring this question further, we ended up with a list: 100 German-language books, written between 1901 and today, that are available in English – 100 German Must-Reads.
It might sound like a cliché, but many of these 100 titles are about German history. Does that make them heavy going or unenjoyable? Of course not – these books have found resonance with numerous readers. Jurek Becker’s 1969 novel Jakob der Lügner (‘Jacob the Liar’, translated by Leila Vennewitz together with Jurek Becker), about life and death in a Polish ghetto during the Second World War, is considered a masterpiece. And in her award-winning 2014 debut novel Vielleicht Esther (‘Maybe Esther’, translated by Shelley Frisch), Katja Petrowskaja pieces together the story of her family, including the Nazis’ massacre of Kiev’s Jewish population, to paint a sweeping picture of twentieth-century Europe.
Germany’s East-West division is another theme that frequently makes for great literature – stories of communist East Germany and its almost surreal surveillance state as described by Wolfgang Hilbig, and stories that place the GDR in the context of a century of German history in the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck.
The list also includes classics by Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Günter Grass, as well as experimental fiction, fantasy fiction and thrillers – writing that reflects the diversity of German-language literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Some of the novels have been international bestsellers, such as Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway). Others are little known even in Germany, such as Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear (translated by Susan Bernofsky).
For each book, we made an online video, both in English and German, and we’ve posted the books on Facebook, Twitter and our brand-new YouTube channel, DW Books.
Once we’d launched the project in autumn 2018, my colleague David Levitz and I went out on the road. In New Delhi we discussed German literature and our project in bookstores as well as at the World Book Fair; in Taiwan we presented our 100 German Must-Reads at the Taipei International Book Exhibition. We also went to the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, USA. What we learned on these trips was that people mainly read German-language literature because they’re interested in German history; they want to find out more about it and about how Germans deal with their history – the proverbial Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past). We also discovered that some readers enjoy German novels without even realising they’re reading foreign fiction. Patrick Süskind and Cornelia Funke aren’t just successful German writers, they’re brilliant storytellers. And by no means everyone is aware that Franz Kafka wrote in German (despite not being German).
Now, a year after we began the project, we’ve gathered some fascinating insights into how German identity is viewed abroad. And we’ve also observed that interest in German-language writing is slowly growing. It seems that the often-cited three per cent of literary fiction titles published in translation in the UK is growing slowly, and is now closer to five per cent, thanks to the lone warriors fighting its corner – the publishers that specialise in translated fiction; the new prizes for translated fiction that have sprung up in recent years; the private and public initiatives designed to whet readers’ appetites for translated fiction. We hope that with our list, we’re also making a modest contribution – and helping to raise awareness of some great authors writing in German.
By Sabine Kieselbach
Visit 100 German Must-Reads here or at youtube/dwbooks.
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Sabine Kieselbach started reporting on books and culture for newspapers and radio stations while studying at university. She has been an editor at Deutsche Welle since 1994, and DW’s literary correspondent since 2016. Her latest project is new English-language YouTube channel ‘DW Books’.