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Metropolis of Translation

Jürgen Jakob Becker (2019)

Keynote speech at the Parataxe Symposium Ü-Berlin
Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, November 23rd, 2019

“Even if it’s often denied: Translation is the oldest profession in the world. In the beginning, there was the word, but no one understood it. Yes, to this day our grasp of it is so inadequate that there will never be an end to translation and interpretation. In economic terms, the translator may sit at the bottom of the estate hierarchy, but in terms of his significance for cultural history, he is at the very top.” Roger Willemsen, whom I have quoted here, is correct: “Translators are indispensable, as they make language barriers surmountable, allow us to share the knowledge and thought of other cultures. In Germany we live in a particularly pronounced translation culture: Luther’s Bible translation laid the foundation for German literary language in the 16th century, and the heyday of German literature in the 18th century was strongly marked by translations which emphatically marked a place for Shakespeare and Homer in German culture. Into few languages, as much is translated from so many so-called “small” languages as into German. In the “homeland of the foreign” (Ijoma Mangold), around 10,000 translated books are published year after year – 3,576 fiction titles in 2018 alone, about every fourth book in this overarching genre, plus every fifth children’s and young adult book is a translation (1,743 titles last year). In addition, there are countless translations into foreign languages that are produced here. A considerable part of this translation work is done in Berlin.

With very few exceptions, those who professionally translate prose, poetry or theatre have to cope with modest payments. Wrestling with publishers for appropriate remuneration is part of the Sisyphus work of the VdÜ Translators’ Association, and of course also the daily bread of every single translator – the proportion of women translators lies at about 70% – who tend to have a weak negotiating position with the publisher. Like the other arts, they are also dependent on public funding – very few people can make a living from the market alone. In Germany, this insight was implemented in several phases: with the installation of the first scholarship programs for translators in the 1970s in the state of Baden-Württemberg, with the founding of the European Translators’ College in Straelen (1978), and above all with the founding of the German Translators’ Fund (DÜF), here in the LCB in September 1997, which is dedicated to the “nationwide, high-quality mediation of foreign-language literature into German” (as the association’s statutes state). The establishment of the German Translators’ Fund goes back to Rosemarie Tietzes’ initiative and paved the way for substantial support for translators of German as a target language, be it through scholarships, further training or through a large number of projects that reflect on translation as an art and key competence in a globalised world and bring it to the attention of the public. The DÜF has grown in the care of the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, the annual BKM funding now amounts to 1.15 million euros, and on a smaller scale the Federal Foreign Office and the Cultural Foundation of the Federal States provide support.

The integration of translators into literature funding may appear as an obvious today, but in the 1990s it had to be pushed through against all odds. Funding for translations was not uncommon at that time either but went entirely to the publishers – for the public perception and appreciation of the shadow-dwelling translators, some educational efforts had to be made. Let’s recall Rosemarie Tietze’s “Plea for the visible and audible translator” by 1991 and the memorandum “Neue Wege der Übersetzerförderung” (New ways of translator funding), something like the founding document of the German Translator Fund from 1997. Yes, the translators have become more visible and audible since then, they are taken seriously and mentioned more frequently in the feuilletons, they speak out, are more present on the literary stages. The solemn emphasis on their indispensability is part of the applauded ritual of every book fair opening. The Leipzig Book Fair Prize attracts attention, and the Federal President includes it in the delegations of his state visits.

Even though the deplorable situation of payment has changed only slightly and slowly, we have made good progress in terms of visibility, respect, and promotion. Today, however, my focus is on Berlin as a city of translators and its protagonists, who have found an institutional anchor in the Literary Colloquium Berlin since the 1980s. Berlin (West) played a pioneering role in the context of funding policy just mentioned. A favourable constellation has been driving developments since the late 1980s. 1987 and 1988 were years of cultural expansion in the western half of the city. The 750th anniversary and Berlin’s activities as a “European City of Culture” in 1988 brought a lot of internationality to the Spree, and a lot of money for festivals and major projects – literature also profited from this. The translator Karin Graf – her translated authors included V.S Naipaul, Joan Didion and Salman Rushdie, known today as the owner of the agency Graf & Graf – approached the LCB during these years with proposals to place literary translation at the centre of events and training courses. Here at the Literary Colloquium, she was met with open arms.

Under the leadership of Ulrich Janetzki, a new profile was introduced, the newly renovated villa was filled with international guests such as Chinua Achebe and Assia Djebar, and soon afterward with many authors from Central and Eastern Europe – quite often in tandem with their German translator. The Berlin Cultural Administration was also open to Karin Graf’s suggestion that the art of translation should be made visible and further developed: in 1990, Senate funds were used to establish a translator’s workshop in the LCB, a combination of work scholarship and advanced training seminar that is still offered annually today as the “mother of all workshops”. One-day seminars on topics such as “translation and editing”, “translation and criticism” or a symposium on “fashions of translation”, all of which were held between 1989 and 1991, brought literary translators out of their secondary role at the cat table of literature, took them seriously as artists and authors and made their knowledge available to the general public as literary producers and mediators. For the LCB translation was a promising, expandable subject, which fitted in well with the new exchange relationships that opened up after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For me, it meant additional studies in the engine room of world literature, and after Karin Graf’s departure from the profession, it meant a field of activity to which I was all too happy to devote myself as an event coordinator for the Literary Colloquium.

Above all, the connection to the LCB helped to form the scene of the translators of this city. The need was palpable; after all, with reunification, the borders between the German and GDR book markets also fell, and two different translation cultures grew together. An important role was played by the privately organised regular translator’s tables. My research revealed that both the Russian and the English regulars’ tables started in early 1990 and were marked by getting to know colleagues from the other half of the city. The public reflection on one’s own activities and their prerequisites, which was tried and tested here in the LCB, sometimes became the scene of controversies. Discussions between opponents and proponents of the usual practice of rewriting in the GDR were, for example, a long-running issue, and a Dostoevsky evening with Svetlana Geier (“Crime and Punishment”/West) and Margit Bräuer (“Guilt and Atonement”/East) also remains in memory because of its dissonant tone. The VdÜ was known to be combative and imaginative in its activism, for example when showing solidarity for a translator mobbed by a publishing house or, rather memorably, when arguing for the reform of the copyright contract law: in a rowing boat they crossed the Spree at the Reichstag, the boat filled with translated books and personal statements for each individual member of the Bundestag. This was a founding period for the Berlin translation scene, and within a few years, a lively community was formed.

The presence of Berlin’s “andersprachigen” (differently-speaking) translators, as I would like to call them, in an allusion to the “parataxe” terminology, i.e. those who translate into target languages other than German, was marginal in all of this until well into the 1990s. In 1991, the LCB hosted a European Translator Conference with 60 participants from all over Europe, covering a wide range of topics from translation theory to payment in their respective countries – all the international guests came from abroad. The Berlin biotope was only to change in the years that followed; nowadays, the same diversity could easily be represented by professionals from Berlin alone.

Literary translation was therefore a well-developed aspect of the LCB programme when we launched an initiative in 2000 dedicated to translators of German-language literature from all over the world. The anchoring of the LCB in the local literary scene, which is now also attracting more attention abroad, the international connections, the expertise in the promotion of translators, not least the material conditions – seminar rooms, guesthouse, a programme budget, third-party funding – created the best conditions for this. With the Arno Schmidt translator John Woods – who later also settled in Berlin – a long line of award-winning translators from the USA began to take residency in our guesthouse; in 2000 we organised the first Summer Academy; in 2003 the cooperation with the Franco-German Goldschmidt Programme began; in 2004, with funding from the Robert Bosch Foundation, the International Translator Meetings; in 2007 the S. Fischer Foundation’s Step Scholarships; in 2009 the DÜF founded the ViceVersa Programme of bilingual workshops. The TOLEDO program, launched in early 2018 and led by Aurelie Maurin, is a joint effort of the German Translators’ Fund and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. It supports international translators in actively playing their role as mediators between cultures and linguistic regions.

The changes in the Berlin biotope can be seen in the lists of applicants and participants for all these projects: more and more Swedish, American, Russian, Polish, Japanese and Argentine translators with Berlin addresses are coming forward – to date, I have counted, 120, 7 of which the LCB knew of before. Their handicap is a double invisibility: in the art they practise, the anonymity ideal generally prevails – a translation shouldn’t be seen to have a second voice, the language of the second author – as if this form of self-extinction were possible at all. Negative omens dominate just as often: Translation as a loss-making business, as a quasi-natural underperformance in relation to the original.

Rosemarie Tietze complained about this “illusion theatre” almost 30 years ago, because “everyone plays along (…): the readers, because they want to experience the poet’s work “unfiltered” – at least that’s what the publishers always say; then the publishers themselves, for understandable reasons, because whoever stays invisible, isn’t there, doesn’t have a right to ask for anything, the critics, because they cheat themselves on the necessity of dealing with the instance of a mediator; sometimes even an imprudent author, if he does not bear the thought that his work will undergo changes; and last but not least, translators themselves are often caught in this illusion.” In addition, the audience of foreign-language translators usually lives elsewhere; recognition and criticism or other forms of public perception take place, if at all, far from the Berlin home. People who pursue such an occupation must therefore be prepared. They are heroes of understatement: their hearts are big, their intellectual horizons wide, but they are easily overlooked.

Looking into this auditorium and all that can flourish here today, however, shows what translators are putting together: Sasha Marianna Salzmann in Swedish, Eugen Ruge in Vietnamese, Clemens Setz in Italian translation, Hannah Arendt for readers in Israel, all these works are created at desks in Neukölln, Wedding, and Pankow. Dang Lanh Hoang, Kamilla Raffo and Gadi Goldberg translate, mostly for painfully little money, for a readership in the distance, but they are living protagonists of the literary city of Berlin. The SAND Journal, the Swedish publishing house Thoren & Lindskog, Katy Derbyshire and their new publishing house V&Q Books, the German-Polish translators’ stammtisch, the Weltlesebühne as event generator, the Junge Weltlesebühne with its presence in Berlin schools, Drama Panorama as an international forum for theatre translation, Verschmuggel in the Haus für Poesie, TOLEDO and JUNIVERS at the Wannsee, all these projects prosper entirely or almost entirely from the activism of Berlin’s international translators. They are at the heart of the differently-speaking city’s free literary scenes, the protagonists of which we have been illuminating for three years in the Parataxe symposiums. Together with their German colleagues, they make Berlin probably the most innovative metropolis of translation in the world.

The transnational character of literary life today represents the greatest tectonic shift in Berlin’s literary landscape since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the meantime, a lot has been done to adapt Berlin’s literary funding to the new situation. The budgets of the Berlin Cultural Administration for individual projects and literary institutions have, in recent times, been noticeably increased. Two years ago the first “Working Scholarships for Non-German Literature” were announced – just saying that out loud makes one visibly flinch – and the Senate sent out a strong signal in terms of their cultural policy. The response was enormous: almost 250 foreign-language authors applied for the 6 year-long scholarships in the first year, and they have now been increased to 10. Ivana Sajko, Elnathan John, Donna Stonecipher, Nora Amin and all the others can talk about what this individual support means to them and what Berlin means to them as a place to write. When selecting these scholarships, one relies, no wonder, on the polyglot knowledge of a jury made up of German and foreign-language translators.

Senate scholarships for translators? Not so far. Given the circumstances, it is an irritating blind spot in the funding policy that translators in the state of Berlin are denied access to scholarships and individual grants. In the early 1990s, mobility grants made it possible to work at the Translators’ College in Straelen and later at the Künstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf. Between 1997 and 2005, 20-25,000 euros a year, in the form of work stipends, were awarded to Berlin translators into German, they then fell victim to a budget freeze, only to never rise from the deadlock again. Almost 15 years later, the time is ripe for a readjustment, and a special focus on the large number of people translating into a foreign language. It is one of the primary demands of the Berlin Literature Conference, the interest representatives of the literary institutions and the free literary scene. Most likely this implementation cannot yet be expected in the coming year. This is extremely regrettable, but it should encourage all those affected to correct this blind spot in politics and administrations, to make themselves more visible and to step out of the shadows.

The literature of the migration society is written in many languages. Berlin, this much is clear, is the laboratory, the outstanding experimental site of this literature. In the twenties, mediators of the foreign and lawyers of diversity are more urgently needed than ever, they deserve respect and recognition, as well as material support. The oldest trade in the world could not be more contemporary.


Keynote for the PARATAXE Symposium VI: Ü-Berlin – the international translators of Berlin on 23.11.2019 at the LCB

Translated by Joey Bahlsen



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