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Books that make it across borders

Jakub Ehrenberger © Jakub Ehrenberger
Jakub Ehrenberger © Jakub Ehrenberger
Jakub Ehrenberger, Literary critic
There were times when books had to be smuggled across borders because they could not be published within the country. Fortunately, those days are long gone, much as certain politicians might wish to bring back fences and walls. More than a quarter of a century after the political transformations, the book markets of the Central Eastern European and Baltic states are free. Free in the traditional meaning of the word, at least, since censorship of a kind persists, namely censorship of the market, of turnover, of commercial success. Will this novel interest our readers? Does that story have a chance in the book market here? Decisions are taken at publishers’ meetings as to which books are to be translated, and thus automatically, which are not. A decision not to publish a book also says quite a lot about the political, social and cultural situation in the countries concerned.

But let’s stay with the titles that make it across borders. The literary translations of the last five years or so that are our subject below may be divided into three main categories. The first group comprises initial and new translations of classics. While limited in number, these account for a constant share of new books, as shown recently by the new translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain into Czech (2016) or the translations of Goethe’s Faust into Hungarian (2015) and Slovak (2015). When a classic is published for the first time ever, people like to talk of “settling debts”, as if every book market had an open account with some celestial accountant. Whether readers and cultural mediators actually do feel relieved when a classic becomes available in their mother tongue is a question that may remain open here.

By way of allusion to the punctuality of trains in Germany, I would like to call the second category “late arrivals”. These are books that do not enjoy classic status (yet) but were overlooked after publication, arousing only delayed interest abroad. As a rule, these are early works by authors who established themselves later on and whose creative work one now wants to get to know better, or books that have once again become relevant, for example as a result of a public reading by an author. I would include the early novels by Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller in this category. Previously almost unknown in Central Eastern Europe (whereby the Polish exception proves the rule), this author’s much-acclaimed novel Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel, 2009) was translated immediately after her recognition. Only then did other no less important works follow, such as Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, 1992) or Herztier (The Land of Green Plums, 1994), novels that present an extremely impressive account of the Ceauşescu dictatorship’s reign of terror. Herztier is now available in Estonian, Polish, Slovenian, Czech and Hungarian translations. Similarly, the works of W. G. Sebald are seeing belated posthumous success and his novels, stories and essays have been translated across the whole of the region.

The last group are new releases that attracted attention immediately after publication and were translated immediately afterwards. Leaving aside titles that owe the sale of their foreign rights to their overwhelming commercial success – one could mention such diverse titles here as Daniel Glattauer’s romantic novels composed of emails Gut gegen Nordwind (Love Virtually, 2006) and Alle sieben Wellen (Every Seventh Wave, 2009), Katharina Hagena’s Der Geschmack von Apfelkernen (The Taste of Appleseeds, 2008) or Timur Vermes’ Hitler satire Er ist wieder da (Looks Who’s Back, 2012) – it is possible to identify two main factors relating to publishers’ decisions that help books to gain a foothold in foreign markets.

In the wake of Daniel Kehlmann’s world success Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World, 2005), biographical narratives with a historical flavour have regularly attracted great interest. In the opinion of the publishing sector, at least, reading books that feature historical personalities as their protagonists gives readers the impression that they are not only being entertained, but also instructed. One becomes acquainted with a historical epoch or personality through the lens of literature. Michael Kumpfmüller’s novel Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens (The Glory of Life, 2011) about Kafka’s late love affair with Dora Diamant is exemplary of this trend of recent years. No wonder then, that it has been translated into languages including Polish, Czech and Hungarian. Examples of works in a similar vein are Florian Illies’ panoramic 1913. Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts (1913. The Year Before the Storm, 2012), Christian Kracht’s colonial novel Imperium (2012) and Volker Weidemann’s Ostende. 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft (Ostende 1936, Summer of Friendship, 2014) although some of these follow different narrative traditions.

In contrast, the second trend is works specific to a particular country. Often, writers are translated who come from the respective country or whose writing is directly related to the target country. Josef Haslinger’s novel Jáchymov (2011), in which the author tells the horror story of political suppression in Czechoslovakia through the example of ice hockey goalkeeper Bohumil Modrý, soon found a Czech publisher. Jan Faktor’s powerfully eloquent retrospective novel Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit (Georg’s Worries about the Past, 2010) is also already available in translation. In it, the author, who lives in Berlin, takes up the theme of growing up in Prague in the fifties and sixties. In Hungary, on the other hand, novels by Terézia Mora are published although the allusions to Hungary and the situation in her country of origin are of only secondary importance in her writing. And while Radek Knapp celebrates success in Poland, Maja Haderlap’s Engel des Vergessens (Angel of Forgetting, 2011), the history of the resistance of the Carinthian Slovenes and the open wounds it left behind, has even made it off the bookshelf and onto the stage of the national theatre in Ljubljana.

The market for translations from German is too variegated and multi-layered to divide new publications into the groups outlined above, however. Spurred on by the huge success of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick (Why We Took the Car, 2010), there has been a resurgence of interest in literature for children and young people in recent years. What is especially pleasing is that books keep on appearing that tackle difficult contemporary social issues (examples include Olga Grjasnowa’s Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt [A Russian is Someone Who Loves Birches] and Abbas Khider’s Ohrfeige [A Slap in the Face]) or take a look at past injustice to recall the danger of certain bodies of thought and raise a finger of warning (Katja Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther [Maybe Esther] and Ralf Rothmann’s Im Frühling sterben [To Die in Spring]).

Hopefully, that will remain so in the future, so that readers in Central Eastern Europe can look forward to titles as diverse as Robert Seethaler’s Ein ganzes Leben (A Whole Life, 2014), Rafik Schami’s Sophia oder Der Anfang aller Geschichten (Sophia or The Beginning of All Stories, 2015) or Benedict Wells’ moving story of three sisters Vom Ende der Einsamkeit (The End of Loneliness, 2016). It is certainly no coincidence that Wells’ novel, which was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature last year and is soon to be published in languages including Lithuanian, Polish, Slovak, Czech and Hungarian, like almost all the above-mentioned works, was presented in the “Books creating buzz” series. I therefore have no doubt that some titles from this year’s particularly inspiring spring selection will also manage to make the leap across the border to the Central Eastern European and Baltic book markets. The only question is, “Which ones?”

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Jakub Ehrenberger

Born in 1990,
he read English, American and German Studies in Prague, Vienna and Bamberg.
He works as a freelance literary critic for media including the Czech website

Spring 2017