German literature in Russia “A Russian Is Someone Who Loves German Books?”

Leipzig Book Fair 2013; Photo: Amrei-Marie (Wikimedia) CC-BY-SA

At the 2013 Leipzig Book Fair, the translator Maria Zorkaja, the critic Alexej Mokroussow, the publisher Michael Krüger, the President of the Goethe-Institut Klaus-Dieter Lehmann and Anne-Bitt Gerecke of Litrix.de discussed this definition.

Almost 1,000 books translated from the German are published annually in Russia. German literature thus takes third place in Russian translations behind English and French, and with a significant backlog. The tendency, however, as is evident from the circulation figures, is happily upwards. Yet such statistics provide only limited information about the actual literary interests of Russian readers or their possible love of German literature.

Which German writers are known at all today in Russia? Which German books appeal to Russian readers? These questions interested the Russian literary scholar and translator Maria Zorkaja. At the Leipzig Book Fair, she reported that her students at the Moscow Gorki Institute for Literary Studies gave surprising answers to the questions. First among German books was Goethe’s Faust, followed by works by Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Franz Kafka, Lion Feuchtwanger and Anna Seghers. “The findings surprised me”, admitted Zorkaja, “because thirty years ago I’d have mentioned the same titles. I wanted to understand the reasons behind this standstill, and in the end the explanation turned out to be quite simple: Exactly these books stood on the shelves of their parents, and most of the students simply didn’t have enough money to buy new books. But you can really inspired young readers to look into contemporary German writers”, added Zorkaja, “when they have the opportunity to see and hear an author at a reading and, even more, to acquire a book there inexpensively”.

Reading tours

Zorkaja’s observations corroborate the effect and resonance of reading tours like the ones that the Goethe-Institut annually organizes in Russia. When contemporary German-language writers visit Russian cities and the network of reading rooms in the sprawling environs, they find an interested audience. “The selection of the authors is important”, stressed Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the President of the Goethe-Institut and a jury member of various literary bodies. “They should focus on issues that are of concern to both German and Russian audiences. Then a real exchange can arise.” Litrix.de, with its Russian focus from 2012 to 2014, would also like to play a mediating role in this direction. The portal and support programme of the Goethe-Institut present current German books and offers Russian publishers translation funding. German and Russian jurors jointly choose which German-language books will be presented. That the concept is catching on has been proven by the first books which have appeared thanks to funding from Litrix.de.

Literary criticism

In spite of this success, the question remains whether Russian readers will in fact reach for these new releases and how interest in them can be awakened apart from authors readings. Alexej Mokroussow, who like Maria Zorkaja serves as a juror for Litrix.de, provided here a vital key word. Literary criticism, declared Mokroussow, who himself runs an Internet portal for reviews of foreign literature, could be an important instance of mediation. At the same time, he admits that “only few Russian critics today are at all in a position to write knowledgably about German literature. Both knowledge of the context of contemporary German literature and the competence to discuss translations critically are lacking. Even if today you find books by writers like Ingo Schulze and Peter Stamm in Russian bookshops, there is hardly anyone competent to review them.” A targeted mediation programme for Russian critics could contribute to improving the situation, suggested Mokroussow.

Range

In conclusion, the publisher and writer Michael Krüger brought the discussion back to the scenario described by Zorkaja and expressed his concern that books fail to find their way to readers for purely financial reasons. The Russian distribution system also unfortunately still restricts the availability of books, for most of the large publishers are located in Moscow and the books that are issued there are still difficult to obtain, and usually more expensive, for readers in remote regions.

After the discussion panel’s multi-faceted exploration, the outlook was unanimously optimistic: contemporary German literature that finds its way to Russia meets with interest from the public and publishers. An extensive, long-term mediation programme is therefore not only desirable but also highly promising. This should consolidate the emerging network into a two-way street, which can also strengthen the reception of Russian literature in Germany.