Double portion of Schernikau

June 2nd, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 14.51.28I was very pleased to have come across Ronald Schernikau when I was doing a translation of the programme for the Deutsches Theater last year: they staged a ‘collage’ of his life of works, played by four different actors, all playing Schernikau at different stages of his life. It was a fun piece. Schernikau was a magnetic personality: this shines through his writing. He was taken by his mother in the boot of her car from Magdeburg where he was born to Hanover where her new lover lived: at the age of 6, after the Wall had been built. That had to be character-building.

Years later, he would return to East Berlin and try and become a citizen of the GDR – only a matter of months before the Wall fell. This is intriguing enough, but there’s something inspiring about kleinstadtnovelle (Small-town Novella), this queer author’s first published book when he was 19, and it is summed up nicely by the Frankfurter Rundschau journalist Jörg Sundermeier

“ein spektakulärer Text über ein unspektakuläres Coming Out. Denn seine Hauptfigur hadert nicht mit ihrem Schwulsein, sie hadert mit der Gesellschaft.” (a spectacular text about an unspectacular coming out. Because his main character isn’t railing against being gay; he’s railing against society).

Schernikau was an “infallible optimist” who died much too young of AIDS. I’ll be writing a piece for Words Without Borders later this month that focuses on his fascinating life and work.

I am very grateful to both the good people at no man’s land and Words Without Borders for printing my translation of this spectacular text. I thoroughly enjoyed the work.

 

Lucy Renner Jones

 

 

Jogger’s journal

May 25th, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 15.58.222pm, Wednesday, Friedrich-Ludwig-Sportpark. My usual ten laps around the track. We all plug ourselves in, avoid eye contact, avoid body contact, avoid each other, spacing out at regular intervals around the track. Surreptitiously, I look at people’s running shoes and make mental notes: no tread, he’ll have back problems at the age of 65. She bought those because they look good, but they’re not really running shoes. I fall into the lazy, judgemental attitude of people out exercising, deciding who is doing it to be seen, doing it at the last possible minute in life, or doing it because they’ve always done it. When did it get so competitive? At the same time grey sweatpants went out of fashion? We keep catching up with the past, then it’s sold back to us as retro fashion. Grey sweatpants are back in. At the other extreme though you can also go high-tech: the girl gliding by with one leg clad in pink Lycra, the other in crocodile print, for example.

He stands out too.

From the very moment I catch sight of him, I know his gear is not from American Apparel, but JD Sports, circa 1992. Stonewashed red sweatshirt. Bunched-ankle blue joggers. I guess he’s in his mid-fifties, with closely cropped, grey hair, and a thick, silver man’s bracelet. There is nothing special about this. Except: he’s dancing, not jogging. Utterly lost in his own world, wearing earbuds and standing at the side of the cinder track, gyrating to his own music. It must be 1970s disco because he sways funkily, rhythmically, doing snaking, curving motions with his legs, and powerful sweeps with his arms. His face is serious, graceful. His moves are dated but his body is lithe; there is absolute conviction in his movements.

People avert their eyes as their legs pump past him like pistons. His movements couldn’t be further away from theirs. They have their eye on optimum movement: apps have charted their ideal time-versus-fitness ratio. The dancing man is unsightly – a leftover from times when people had time. He is not in it for the exercise. I feel the collective embarrassment: it passes over the bobbing heads like a wave. What is he doing? Who is he dancing for? Why not just dance in front of the mirror at home?

 

5pm, Saturday, Monbijou Park. A couple are sitting next to each other as I jog off to the left, passing close by; they are sitting on a bench behind the diamond-wire fencing. She is young, with long brown hair; he is young, with short black hair. Both in puffer jackets because the sun has disappeared. Hers is white; his is black. He wears hair gel and she wears lipstick. It looks like their first date. On my next lap I see that they are sitting a little closer together. Lap three, they’re holding hands. By lap four, they are at it with tongues. Lap five, she is straddling him on the park bench and they are writhing about. On my sixth and final lap, they are sitting a little further apart, texting separately on their phones.

 

12pm, Sunday, Kleingartenkolonie, Bornholmer Strasse. I have heard the blossom up here is pretty. First I have to risk my life crossing the dual carriageway. Then through the wooden tunnel and into another world. The urban landscape gives way to small gardens; each plot is a feat of inventiveness and derring-do. How the shacks and sheds manage to stay up is a mystery. They all bear the stamp of the individualist: blue painted roof here, a wheel for a window there. It’s warm. I see a tall, bulky man in his seventies, sweeping up leaves. He is wearing a lumberjack shirt rolled up at the sleeves. On his forearm is the remains of an old tattoo, greenish with age. He stops and looks off into the distance. A woman, also in her seventies, arrives on her bike with a basket; inside (I imagine) a picnic covered by a chequered tea towel. She kisses him on the cheek, slowly, lingeringly. They go into the lean-to hut holding hands. And there are some beautiful old cherry trees lining the path, with the promised blossom.

 

 

Amazon’s literary ambitions

October 20th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 00.59.32I am unsure what to make of the latest news that Amazon is pumping 10 million dollars into its AmazonCrossing imprint for the translation of titles into English. Alarm bells go off when a multinational company starts pouring money into a business sector that is notoriously bad at making a profit. The first question that comes to mind is: why? Perhaps the answer its simply: because it can. But presumably Amazon board meetings used tables with figures: lines sailing up into profit margins, not black squiggly arrows pointing downwards to non-profitability. Having said that, AmazonCrossing’s undertaking is likely to be profitable due to its choice of titles – popular titles, translated at a fast pace and made available quickly to a broad public, mostly in ebook form. If only 2% of people buying a fridge add a vampire novel or mystery thriller to their shopping cart, the lines will be going up, not down.

In a recent, very informative TV programme on arte about Amazon and the publishing world, the company’s tendency to stir up strong feelings and divide opinion was highlighted. I believe that the debate on AmazonCrossing’s new proposal needs to be seen in the context of Amazon’s role in the publishing world in general. The facts are: Amazon makes profit from books by fairly ruthless means and especially since reading shifted from analogue to digital form. The company’s ruthlessness lies in its ability to dictate the terms of the market and circumvent any dialogue with other players and stakeholders – whereas literary translators on the whole are a dedicated group of people who actively seek and support solidarity in their field. Amazon’s tactics on the whole strike me and a great deal of other people as being in opposition to this solidarity. Of the ebook market, as Reinhold Joppich (Kiwi’s sales manager) says on the arte broadcast, Amazon makes 70% of the available profit in this field – a clear monopoly. This is no accident either – the company, according to The Author’s Guild, has fought a long hard battle against the Big Six publishers in the field. The arte programme also quotes Michael Then from Piper Verlag saying that Amazon has single-handedly changed – or more accurately reverted – the publishing business model by putting the distribution and production of books into one hand, a model that was practised before the advent of the publishing house and the role of the editor. Everyone and anyone can be an author these days with print on demand and ebooks. Perhaps this is the crux of the matter. The process of waiting to see how book sales develop in the original language, and selecting titles to translate, is largely the first step in literary translation work: a process that means that the translator is a major factor in the selection process of what is translated. Presses who specialise in literary translation – such as Seagull Books, Peirene Press, & Other Stories, Haus Publishing, Other Press, New Directions, Archipelago, and so on – carefully select their titles and their main motivation is not profit. Unfortunately, profit and literary translation don’t go hand in hand, although there are exceptions. That’s partly what makes this news so difficult to gauge. Will AmazonCrossing at some point go into competition with independent presses of literary fiction? Read the rest of this entry »

The Yellow Ones

September 29th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 16.32.47So I get on my bike and head for the bar, wondering why, as this story forms in my mind, this sentence starts with “so”. As I’m cycling, I think about a Facebook discussion in the use of the word “so” at the beginning of sentences. I haven’t even bothered to read the discussion because it’s obvious – a narrative device designed to throw the reader into the middle of the action as if we – the reader and I – are having this ongoing intimate chat. The reader is supposed to prick up her ears in cased she’s missed something.

 

In my case, this is just the way the story starts to form in my head. I have only reached the end of the road on my bike, and I’ve already thought this much.

 

So I get on my bike and cycle towards the bar. I text “I’m running late,” and I get “No worries” in return.

 

I stop for cigarettes. The Turkish shop assistant, a man in his late fifties, hands me a packet that says RAUCHEN VERURSACHT HERZANFÄLLE. I hesitate. The friend I’m going to meet has been preoccupied with death lately, especially his own, He thinks he might die young of a heart attack, like his father. I don’t want to turn up with this large black-and-white warning – on a night where I’m preparing to tell him he’ll be fine, despite the tightening of his chest, he won’t die young. It’s all a state of mind: smoke like no one’s watching, smoke like it’s 1999. Don’t worry, 4 cigarettes a day never killed anyone. It’s the worry that’ll kill you.

 

I hesitate – as all this goes through my mind in the blink of an eye – and I say to the Turkish shop assistant: “Do you have a different packet? Not a different brand, the same brand – just a different warning?” Read the rest of this entry »

The Squirrel Principle

June 23rd, 2015
Photo: Arzt Salemski

Photo: Arzt Salemski

A new publishing venture, the Pigeonhole, commissioned me to write for their series ‘Letters from Berlin’. The result, a piece on Prenzlauer Berg called “The Squirrel Principle”, was published here yesterday. The idea was born from a similar project of dispatches written about various countries in Africa.

It was pure luck that I found a photograph on Facebook showing Soupanova’s last days. And even happier to see a friend of mine in it, which meant I could ask him to use it.

If you sign up to Pigeonhole, you receive staves – one text from a series – in your email account every so often. You don’t have to buy the whole book.

Living in the Anthropocene

April 8th, 2015

The-AnthropoceneFollowing the publication of Christian Schwägerl’s book, Living in the Anthropocene, there has been a flurry of reviews (many of which, rather frustratingly, do not credit the translator) in The Independent, among others. Still, it’s good to know that this book, which turned me into a vegetarian after I translated it, is getting some publicity. It’s a must-read! The basic premise is that we have to regard the era we live in as having been so radically altered by human presence that it should be renamed: from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. It is not Doomsday in its outlook, like many texts on this subject, but actually makes you feel as if there is something that can be done. You can order it directly from the publisher’s shop, or via the usual channels. The English language edition is a much revised version of the original German text: knowledge in this field is revised as quickly as you can say global warming.

Faking it well

October 23rd, 2014

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 8.35.20 PMA long time ago, I used to know an amateur German actress in Berlin who did dubbing jobs for film. She once said that, before a certain client would give her a job, he asked her whether the subject matter was ‘too close to home’. If so, she was told, she shouldn’t take it on: emotional breakdowns cost expensive studio time.

I asked a friend of mine who does commercial voice-overs whether this anecdote rings true, and he said: ‘I should imagine, if anything, that having gone through a certain experience would help an actor. He could work it into the job somehow.’

There it is in a nutshell: a professional actor knows how to use emotional experiences in his work. For an amateur, it could lead to an emotional problem.

I have recently started thinking about the job I do and what kind of effect it has on my psyche. It started when I experienced what it was like to translate a text that was not ‘too close to home’, but too harrowing for me to sleep properly at night. Most translators from the German have had disturbing texts land on their desks in the course of time, given the nature of the past ninety years of German history and the English-speaking world’s undying fascination with it. But while many translators might take this in their stride, I began floundering with this text. It was about Auschwitz: perhaps because it was written in the present tense, perhaps because of the details of parts of the text, I found myself procrastinating for hours before I could sit down and start work. I talked about this to a translator friend, who advised me to spend 10 minutes a day before I started work, just to jot down the feelings that this text was producing. Just for my own sanity. Read the rest of this entry »

things I know so far #2

October 23rd, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-19 at 6.47.51 PMcreativity rarely occurs in a vacuum

it can be a group activity

or even just a conversation

listening to criticism is not the same

as beating yourself up

the mistakes you take great pains to avoid passing on

to your children

will be replaced by other, perhaps bigger mistakes that

sneak in where your blind spot is

nostalgia should be an alarm bell

but rituals can be comfort

trees are nearly always good news

as are many kinds of animals

and sports

and old friends

when you hear your mother or father speaking

and look around to see who said something

and discover it was you

it’s not always a bad thing

music transcends

if it doesn’t, it’s not the right music

 

Making it all up

October 12th, 2014

man kann erfahrungen machenOne of the nicest conversations I had at the Frankfurt Book Fair was with the five-year-old daughter of friends with whom I was staying. I had bought her a chapter book with the idea that her parents could read it to her, because at five, she obviously can’t read yet. But that didn’t stop her trying. She sat on an armchair in her living room, fixated on the open book and “reading” it aloud to herself. “What happens in the story?” I asked her. From her reply I realised she was pretending to understand what was going on, puzzling it out from clues in the few pictures and adding a whole fantasy part that she had made up.

In the Finnish pavilion, I met a Frenchman who was working for an interactive project called Metatext that produces something based on a similar idea. “Imagine,” he said, “you don’t read in the normal way, but you take a book and read the first paragraph, then flip to the end and read the last. You can just make up how you think the story should be in between.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that a five-year-old I know had already stolen his business idea.

Other encounters seemed to have a great deal to do with timing. The five o’clock vodka shots in the Finnish hall were a good example of this, as were the Irish whiskey shots at the Irish stand in Hall 8.0: turn up at a quarter past and the booze was likely to have run out. There was coincidental timing too: spotting a shrunken Helmut Kohl being wheeled in for an appearance in Hall 3.0 looking like his very own waxwork figure in an oversized suit, or a bemused Judith Hermann in a shopping passageway at night, her way blocked by a trio of Spanish dancers who slid across the floor to promote the launch of their photography book. There was also bad timing, like the friend who only managed to arrive at the end of the day in Frankfurt after spending most of the day chasing a postman in Berlin to get hold of her business cards. And good timing: being in the Frankfurter Hof at the moment when group of lovely translators turned up and having a few drinks with them – on the house, due to some lax waiters.

All this added up to a strewn kind of experience this year, and went to prove that even without fixed plans, it’s worth going to Frankfurt to soak up some unexpected moments. The main thing is to sort out the train ticket there and back. What happens in between could be made up by a five year old.

ohne es dafür zu halten

Anti-climaxes and adrenaline

September 2nd, 2014

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 10.18.41 AMLife past 45 starts getting to be one big anti-climax. Everything gets a little saggy as gravity kicks in, and on the horizon there is just one long string of breakfasts to be eaten. Or at least this is how I explain the strange lack of euphoria I feel at getting my German citizenship. What was I expecting? A letter from Angela Merkel? A fanfare of trumpets as I walked down the steps of Berzirksamt Pankow?

It started all so auspiciously. I was given a time and a date to go pick up my Citizenship Certificate – I was even asked if 8.00 wasn’t a little too early, which must be such a rare utterance in German Behörde that I wondered if Frau D. wasn’t being a little sarcastic. But if she was, there was no trace of it on her beaming face as she came out of room 119 to greet me at punkt acht Uhr. We went into her office, she whipped out a green certificate, my Einbürgerungsnachweis of which there is only one, this one, and no other, which can never, ever be copied or reproduced so God forbid I lose it. Then she asked me to stand up and walked around the table towards me, so quickly and purposefully that I thought for one moment that the Einbürgerungsritual was going to involve a Socialist kiss in Honecker-Brezhnev style. But no. She merely held onto my green one-and-only-in-the-whole-world certificate and asked me to repeat after her that I knew the laws of the land in Germany and would do my utmost not to break them. I repeated her words, thinking that technically, they weren’t true – I don’t know all the laws of the country – and wondering whether I was already committing an offence in my barely 2-minute-old existence as a German. In any case, once that was over, she squeezed my hand fiercely and wished me a happy life, or words to that effect. And I left. Read the rest of this entry »