Leipzig book fair 2012
Enriching, democratic and mobbed: the Leipziger Buchmesse, which takes place in March in Leipzig’s spectacular glass and steel Messehalle, is not to be missed. I travelled there with a group that included translators from England, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland and Sweden. Our first appointment was at LesArt, a seemingly unique facility that uses innovative tools to interest children in reading. As LesArt’s director, Sabine Mähne, told us about overnight reading parties, trips to Berlin landmarks that feature in novels and reading groups that were so much fun they endured beyond childhood, I think we all wished we’d lived in LesArt’s catchment area when we were children.
The discussion quickly turned to the translation of books for children and young people. If the amount of literature translated into English is low overall – estimates suggest that only 3% of new titles released annually in Britain are translated works – it’s even lower in the children’s market, and the share going to German books is pitiful.
Publishers put up all kinds of obstacles apparently, citing cultural differences even when it comes to the drawings that appeal to young children. It seems a great shame to miss the opportunity to introduce children directly to other countries and cultures through translated books, but, with some rare exceptions, missing it we are.
Why is that? We were lucky to have a children’s book publisher, Siobhán Parkinson from the children’s publisher Little Island in our group. She said it was money, stupid. The translation is an extra cost. This means that where publishers do translate books, they tend to favour languages from countries that cover the cost in its entirety, such as Sweden.
Insularity and myopia
Further illumination came at dinner that evening in Cum Laude, the Humboldt-University restaurant. We were joined by Lucy Renner Jones and Steph Morris, German-English translators living and working in Berlin. Steph believes so little translated literature is published in Britain because “the UK in general is insular and London is particularly arrogant”. The Booker “International” Prize is a good example of this “structural insularity and myopia”, he says.
And indeed, it does seem that a lot of Brits are simply not that interested in certain kinds of European literature, including German literature.
This British myopia may explain why the publisher for Lucy and Steph’s next project, an English translation of Brigitte Reimann’s diaries, is Seagull Books, a Calcutta-based house that has built a growing reputation by publishing English-language translations of European literature. The recently published diaries of this fascinating East German author, whose novel Die Geschwister Steph recently wrote about in New Books in German, are described by the translators as “intense, illuminating and inspiring”. Can’t wait to see the translation.
Meanwhile, we may perhaps hope that Berlin’s unofficial status as European capital of cool and the increasing number of British visitors it is therefore attracting will help correct British short-sightedness regarding German literature. The importance of travel in piquing interest in a country’s literature was a point picked up by the Italian representative on the translators’ panel run by Literarisches Colloquium Berlin (LCB) at the Leipzig book fair.
Twenty years ago, he said, beyond the staples of Grass, Böll and Bernhard little contemporary German literature was translated into Italian. However, more contemporary German literature has appeared in Italian translation recently, partly because Italians are visiting Germany more.
The Berlin novel lives
Many of them will head for Berlin. (Though not all: the Italian translator claimed Niedersachsen and Mecklenburg Vorpommern were also popular destinations for Italian tourists, much to the astonishment of Jürgen Jacob Becker from LCB, the panel moderator: “Was?!” he said.) And the Berlin novel was the topic for our final engagement in the capital at the lakeside villa in Wannsee where LCB is based.
We heard from two novelists who have recently published Berlin-Romane: Annett Gröschner and Albrecht Selge. Each takes a very different view of the city. In Selge’s novel, Wach, much of which plays out in shopping malls, the city is presented anonymously, whereas in Gröschner’s novel, Walpurgistag, it is very recognisably Berlin.
This has brought upon the author’s head the kind of Ärger every writer dreads from nitpicking readers, upset, inter alia, that she sent a car the wrong way down a one-way street. In such cases, one must remember the words of W.G. Sebald who, in reply to a comment pointing out that in Austerlitz he said the clock in Antwerp Central railway station was to the left of the main entrance when in fact it is to the right (or vice versa), reputedly replied, “In my book, it is to the left.”
And so to Leipzig
After lunch at LCB (during which I had an interesting chat with a German-Russian translator who spoke the words every German publisher must surely dread: for leisure she prefers to read British or American authors because they are unterhaltsamer), we zipped down to Leipzig in just over an hour on the ICE train.
Once installed in the Hotel Mercure on Augustusplatz (the former Hotel Deutschland), we nipped across the square to the Gewandhaus for the book fair opening ceremony. It is a huge event lavishly catered by a city that is extremely proud of its annual book fair, which could so easily have withered away after reunification. Instead it has grown under the auspices of its director, Oliver Zille, and in 2012 attracted 2,017 publishers and 163,500 visitors.
The highlight of the evening was the awarding of the Leipzig book prize for European understanding to Ian Kershaw for his book The End about the final days of Hitler’s Germany and to Timothy Snyder for Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. As I traipsed downstairs to the groaning buffet afterwards, I marvelled both at Ian Kershaw’s eloquence in German and at the generosity of the award. It’s hard to imagine the British heaping honours on translated histories of 20th century Britain written by foreigners.
Reading into the night
The following two days were spent at the book fair proper. It’s a crazy, energising mish-mash of stalls, readings, live TV and radio shows, poetry slams and interviews with important people on the famous Blue Sofa – a ZDF interview studio bang in the middle of the main glass hall.
The Leipzig book fair is much bigger and more open plan than book festivals I’ve visited in the UK. The fair also spills out into the city through subsidiary events in bookshops, museums and cafés, the most notable being the Lange Leipziger Lesenacht in the Moritzbastei, an underground (literally) student club housed in a 16th century former armoury.
The Lesenacht takes place on the first night of the book fair, goes through the night and is an opportunity to hear younger writers, some of them current or former students from the Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig. The place was packed when we went and the atmosphere was great, but for my money the presentation was a little staid, following the same panel format as the “grown-up” festival. Edgy it was not, though perhaps I left before it really got going.
Ironically, it felt easier to get close to the writers, including heavyweights such as Martin Walser (speaking out against entitlement and saying he doesn’t want to be right any more), Ian Kershaw and Péter Nádas, at the main book fair. The open-plan layout at the fair also meant it was easy to drop in an out.
One writer at the Lesenacht did stand out for me, however: Franziska Gerstenberg. She was reading from her novel Spiel mit mir, a creepy and provocative tale of a single mother’s experiments with Internet dating and sex games.
Others from the group said they enjoyed Olga Grjasnowa’s vibrant delivery of her new novel Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt. Grjasnowa, whose family is originally from Azerbaijan and emigrated to Germany in 1996, is one of several new German writers from an immigrant background whose writing deals with that background.
Strong voices in “tranzyt”
The main book fair was a veritable cornucopia of literary delights. It was quite impossible to see everything, but the book fair was nonetheless a great way to get an overview of what’s happening on the German literary scene.
Highlights for me included catching up with the Berlin-based poet Johannes Jansen, who came to the Glasgow Film Festival in 2011 for an event on banned East German films and whose poem Richtung Schönhauserallee I translated for Gutter managzine. Johannes was reading from his new book Hinter Her, a prose work billed by his publisher Klever Verlag as “an explanation”. Johannes was not enjoying the Sturm und Drang of the book fair as much as me, so we agreed afterwards to meet again when I returned to Berlin.
I wandered off to hear three truly brilliant Eastern European poets: Justyna Bargielska from Poland, Elena Zaslawskaja from the Ukraine and Volha Hapejeva from Berlarus. Their slot was part of “tranzyt”, a new experimental stream at the Leipzig book fair focused on Polish, Belarussian and Ukrainian literature, which featured 20 events with 32 authors. For me, it was a rare and very welcome opportunity to see and hear these fabulous writers.
Hearing the three women read was a joy. They gave readings so strong that although I do not master any of their languages I felt deeply moved. An important theme for all three was the female body and the sometimes complex business of inhabiting it. All three women exemplified what poetry (and indeed all writing) should be: strong voices talking about uncomfortable stuff that matters in a kick-ass way. The personal is political, to quote an old feminist rallying cry, and all three of these wonderful poets exuded political engagement.
A translator speaks
Another highlight for me at the fair was listening to Péter Nádas’ translator, Christina Viragh, on the Blue Sofa. Viragh, whose translation of Nádas’ Parallegeschichten won the 2012 Leipzig book fair prize for translation, spoke with great intelligence about the translation process, particularly her close collaboration with Nádas, who speaks excellent German.
As anyone who has attempted literary translation will know, it can be a frustrating and intensely difficult business. Being able to discuss the translation with the original author is a tremendous help (as long as they don’t behave like Samuel Beckett apparently did and question every word).
But what was especially interesting to me about the interview with Christina Viragh on the Blue Sofa was that it happened at all. It’s hard (impossible actually) to imagine a mainstream TV audience in Britain tuning in to watch a translator talk about her work. (Britain’s got translation skills anyone?) It was one of many events at the book fair that illustrated how much more prized translation skills are in Germany than in Britain.
Aufarbeiting – the beat goes on
Rayk Wieland’s new novel, Kein Feuer, das nicht brennt was a new discovery for me at the fair. I’d never heard of this book or its very witty and perceptive author. The fire in question is the computer fire found in hotel foyers, which, as Wieland told Martin Kaul from taz, has now been perfected to such a degree that it crackles and spits. This means great technological expertise has been brought to bear to create what we already had in the Stone Age: “nur nicht warm”.
The fire that doesn’t burn is a symbol for our times, and Wieland’s new book, which is about a travel journalist who hasn’t left the borders of the former GDR since 1989, challenges a very modern sacred cow: that travel broadens the mind. In reality, says Wieland, “Man reist vorbei an die Welt. Es ist ein seltsames, ritualistisches Ding, das wir machen.”
Through its stay-at-home hero, Wieland’s novel also deals with the theme of the former GDR. In this, Wieland is far from alone. The topic of Aufarbeitung (coming to terms with the GDR past) was a preoccupation for many of the writers at the book fair. It’s interesting to see how distance has created a catalyst. It really feels like the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was not so much the beginning of the end of the Aufarbeitung process as the end of the beginning.
That’s partly because what happened damals still affects people so much today. This was brought home very clearly by Ruth Hoffmann’s new book Stasi-Kinder, which has been made into a film of the same name. Not only did fathers who were in the Stasi keep quiet about their job in GDR times, explained Hoffmann to an ARD journalist; they keep quiet about it now too.
Then and now
After two hectic and extremely enjoyable days at the book fair, it was time for a farewell dinner in Leipzig’s famous Auerbachskeller. We supped at the next table to Ian Kershaw and his wife (but left them in peace of course) and were united in our sincere thanks to Elisabeth Pyroth from the Goethe Institut for her fabulous and seamless organisation of the tour.
Afterwards, some of us popped along to the young publishers’ party in the old post office. This brought back memories for me as I used to go there to call home when I studied in Leipzig in 1986. I well remember the stony looks I used to get from the other people queuing to phone because I always got a booth before them – it much easier to get a line out to the UK than to West Germany – and the little click that everyone said was the Stasi joining the call…
It was an interesting way to round off the trip and reminded me how much Leipzig has changed in the last two and a half decades. There are two constants, however: Leipzig is and always has been a great city, and the people of Leipzig, who in 1989 started the revolution that toppled a bankrupt regime, are as provocative, friendly and engaged as they have always been.