Martin Chalmers

Martin Chalmers © Esther Kinsky Martin Chalmers was born in 1948 in Bielefeld. He grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, and after many years in Birmingham and London he lived in Rixdorf in Berlin where he died of cancer in 2014. Chalmers studied history at the universities of Glasgow, Birmingham and Bochum and has translated many leading German-language authors into English.

His book translations include Europe, Europe and The Silences of Hammerstein by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, The Passport (Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt) by Herta Müller and The Orphanage by Hubert Fichte. He edited and translated a selection of stories by Erich Fried under the title Children and Fools and edited Beneath Black Stars, a volume of contemporary Austrian fiction.

Recent translations include Summer Resort by Esther Kinsky and Brussels, the Gentle Monster or the Disenfranchisement of Europe by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In 2004 Martin Chalmers was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for The Lesser Evil his translation of the post-1945 Diaries of Victor Klemperer.

Three questions to Martin Chalmers

Why did you choose to become a translator? Is it the profession you always wanted?

I became a translator almost by accident. I was writing a doctoral thesis in modern German history but had run out of time and money. I was in a reading group at the time and one of my fellow-readers was an editor in a small publishing house and he needed a German translator and knew that I was short of cash and suggested that I take on the job. And so one thing led to another, one book led to another and the thesis remained unfinished. I should add that I had always been and still am interested in issues of cultural exchange.
Which German book do you like the best and why?

I doubt whether any translator or writer will have just one favourite book. I could name a dozen or twenty books from German literature that have accompanied my life, beginning with the volume of Grimms’ Tales from which my mother read to me before I started school (and for a while after that). Or I can think of the effect ‘Lenz’ and ‘Danton’s Death’ and ‘Woyzeck’ by Georg Büchner had on me as a student or the stories of Alexander Kluge or later those of Robert Walser, particularly ‘Kleist in Thun’ or the compulsive exhilaration produced by my first reading of Thomas Bernhard. But perhaps the one book I turn to more than any other is the Suhrkamp edition of the Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht. I doubt if any other poet in recent times has written so many good poems, was a master of so many poetic forms. Most important: reading Brecht is always a stimulus and an encouragement to keep going in dark times.
Is there a particular book you would like to translate?

There’s no end to the list of books that should be translated and re-translated from German. And of course the hardest part is not necessarily the translation itself but making an unfamiliar writer known, finding a readership for him or her in English. The deficits are perhaps even greater among classic authors and in non-fiction than in current writing. There is one book, however, that I think would give me great pleasure to translate. ‘Da geht ein Mensch’ (There Goes a Man) by Alexander Granach has been repeatedly reprinted in German, but the 1945 American translation is by now inadequate (it was unfortunately reissued in 2010). Granach was one of the great actors of Weimar stage and screen, but his origins in a poverty-stricken shtetl did not promise such fame. Almost by accident (and on the run) Granach arrived in Berlin and graduated from popular Yiddish plays to Max Reinhardt’s stage school and then theatre. German literature is rich in autobiographies and autobiographical novels, but this is one of the best, a literary classic. The book ends in 1918 and Granach died before he could complete a second volume.

  • Sherko Fatah: The Dark Ship (Das dunkle Schiff). 2012
  • Alexander Kluge: The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8th April 1945 (Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945). 2012 (in Vorbereitung)
  • Ulrich Peltzer: Part of the Solution (Teil der Lösung). 2012 (in Vorbereitung)
  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Brussels, the Gentle Monster (Sanftes Monster Brüssel oder die Entmündigung Europas). University of Chicago Press, 2011
  • Esther Kinsky: Summer Resort (Sommerfrische). Seagull Books, 2011
  • Thomas Bernhard: Prose. Seagull Books, 2010
  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger: A history of Clouds. Seagull Books, 2010 (übers. mit Esther Kinsky)
  • Erich Hackl: The wedding in Auschwitz (Die Hochzeit von Auschwitz). Serpent's Tail, 2009  
  • Bertolt Brecht: Stories of Mr. Keuner (Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner). City Lights Books, 2001
  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Europe, Europe! (Ach Europa!). Pantheon Books, 1989
  • Herta Müller: The passport (Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt). Serpent's Tail, 1989
  • Günter Wallraff: Lowest of the low (Ganz unten). Methuen, 1988