Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British Library

It’s not often that I’m down in London and able to swank around all the amazing literary and German-language events here, but that’s the joy of sabbatical! Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to go to an Open University-sponsored event on Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British library, with German literary hero Birgit Vanderbeke, translation hero Jamie Bulloch, and new literary heroes Jordi Punti, Miha Mazzini and Maja Visenjak Limon.

I first encountered Vanderbeke’s work eight years ago, when I taught Geld oder Leben (Your Money Or Your Life) to first year students at Trinity College Dublin, and was enchanted by how angry the students were at the critique of capitalism in the seemingly guileless novel. How dare Vanderbeke suggest that there might be a way of living outside capitalism! How dare her deceptively simple prose lead the teenagers into an unexpected linguistic critique of marketing! I developed a healthy respect for her dark literary arts.

The British Library didn’t showcase one superstar, though – it created a brilliant, transEuropean dialogue on literature between five brilliant, opinionated and collegiate literary experts. I livetweeted the discussion under the hashtag #wct, if you’re interested in reliving the experience via breathless Twitter, but what’s missing there is the repartee, the translation heresies and the shared vision of European literature that emerged.

Translation heresy was definitely a theme – Limon confessed to translating into her second language, Bulloch to not knowing or caring much about literary theory, and Vanderbeke vigorously asserted that translation had to disrespect, indeed destroy the text to bring it closer to a new audience. Quite fabulous.

But even more moving than the translation heresy was the passionate commitment to translation in evidence. Although all three writers declared emphatically that writing with a translator in mind would be impossible, all three argued that translation is essential to literature, and indeed to human communication – it allows us to see the human in someone who is far away. Punti argued eloquently that European culture has in fact been constituted by inter-European translation, from the first Catalan translations of Dante in the fifteenth century onwards, and that Europe can be seen as a space of distinct but interlinking translation traditions – the Mediterranean tradition, the Slav tradition, and the declining but crucially important U.K. tradition.

There were many more insights in the mix, from discussions about new readability and the influence of Anglo-Saxon plot-driven fiction on other languages, to concerns about the number of national literatures that are becoming increasingly insular. I even managed to ask Vanderbeke and Bulloch a question about the Nachleben of Vanderbeke’s Muschelessen: what does it mean to have a text translated almost 25 years later? (Vanderbeke said that this book is an exception, it has stayed alive through readings and dialogues and constant publications ever since she first wrote it in 1989). I didn’t get a chance to tell her how delighted I was that her work managed to outrage my students so thoroughly eight years ago, but instead I left with a new reading list and a renewed passion for translation – an even more important gift.

Portsmouth: Translation and Memory Conference, 5.11.11

I’ve had a wonderfully exciting and stimulating Reading Week at two conferences – just what Reading Week should be about, except that I didn’t actually have any time to read! Can we have a second Reading Week to follow up on all the wonderful ideas that others propose at conferences?

The first conference was the Portsmouth Translation Studies Conference, on Translation and Memory. I was speaking on H. G. Adler, and my abstract was as follows:

Translating Trauma: the fiction of H. G. Adler

The Prague German writer and scholar H. G. Adler (1910-1988) wrote a massive body of work concerning the Holocaust, much of which has sunk without a trace until a recent revival of interest in his work. While his works of historiography, principally his ‘Theresienstadt: Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft’ (1955) have been viewed as classics of Holocaust scholarship, his literary works and novels have received little reception, despite repeated republication since the 1960s. In particular, publishers rejected them in the 1950s because the way in which they translated Holocaust memory into literature was felt to be inappropriate. Following Adler’s centenary, however, these novels have begun to be translated into English, French and other languages, and are finding a new audience.
This paper addresses itself to two intertwined questions: Firstly, how do Adler’s novels, particularly ‘Eine Reise’/’The Journey’ and ‘Die Unsichtbare Wand’, both written in the late 1940s, address the problems of translation of memory within the texts themselves? Although the two novels have very different poetic strategies – one a highly experimental and polyvocal text, the other a first-person narrative told in mostly realist fashion – both are answers to the question of how to translate memory into text. Artur Landau, the protagonist of ‘Die Unsichtbare Wand’ and Paul Lustig, the only survivor of his family in ‘Eine Reise’, struggle to communicate their experiences in a post-war world bent on forgetting and on the creation of new forms of language that elide the specificity of Holocaust experience, and when faced with a dislocation of the self that makes saying ‘I’ impossible. Drawing on the theories of Agamben, I look at the various strategies that Adler employs to translate the memory of ‘homo sacer’ into literary language, that further draws on the literary memory of the destroyed Prague School. Further, I address some of the problems facing the translation of these texts into our post-memory-boom culture.

Of course, I didn’t get through all of that material at all – abstracts are always so over-ambitious! – but I did manage to get as far as using Agamben to talk about Adler’s impossibility of saying ‘I’, and I look forward to writing up the material into a paper.

I also had a go at livetweeting the event, and rather than have the tweets disappear into the ether, I thought I might as well paste them below. Obviously the chronology now runs from bottom to top, rather than top to bottom, but that’s the multi-directional, non-linear nature of the internet, isn’t it?
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Larissa Boehning visits Leeds

In March 2011, I was lucky enough to be able to bring German author Larissa Boehning to hold a translation masterclass and reading at the German department in Leeds, giving students an insight into literary translation and publication

Larissa Boehning and I discuss the translation workshop with my colleague Ingrid Sharp


On the 28th of March 2011, German author Larissa Boehning held a translation masterclass and a reading at the Leeds German department, accompanied by her translator Lyn Marven, who is also an academic at the University of Liverpool.

Students from all undergraduate levels and Masters students really enjoyed coming together to tackle particularly tricky translation problems in Boehning’s new unpublished novel, ‘The Song of the Cicadas’, and to bounce their ideas off Boehning and Marven.

Afterwards, Boehning held a reading from the novel, and she discussed political issues in her work with academics from the Department of German, Russian and Slavonic Studies. She also discussed her writing style and how she tackles the big issues in European history, from Stalin’s purges to the US occupation of Germany, while maintaining a focus on individual stories and family tales in her writing. Boehning’s work explores the way in which family histories and the histories of Europe criss-cross each other.

The event was a great opportunity for students of German literature and translation to see the work of a young writer and translator in action, and to get a taster of the professional literary translation process. As a result of this and other events, several students are now considering literary translation as a career. Larissa Boehning is just one in a series of distinguished German literary guests at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures in Spring 2011.

About Larissa Boehning

Larissa Boehning received great critical acclaim with her debut collection of short stories ‘Schwalbensommer’ and her novel ‘Lichte Stoffe’, about the experiences of the daughter of a black GI growing up in suburban Germany. She was trained in cultural studies, philosophy and art history. After four years in Palma de Mallorca, she has been back in Berlin since 2007. In 2000 she won Jetzt magazine’s short-story contest, and in 2002 the Prenzlauer Berg Literature Prize. ‘Lichte Stoffe’ received an award in 2007 for best German-language debut novel. Boehning regularly teaches creative and literary writing at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf.