Not Only for Emergencies: what helps a German-language book to travel

Jamie Bulloch discusses his forthcoming translation of Die Liebe im Ernstfall (Love in Five Acts) and reflects on what can help German-language books resonate with an English-speaking readership.

By Jamie Bulloch

Daniela Krien’s Die Liebe im Ernstfall (Diogenes, 2019) will be published next spring in my translation by MacLehose Press in the UK (as Love in Five Acts) and by HarperVia in the US (as Love in Case of Emergency). It is her third work of fiction, following on from Irgendwann werden wir uns alles erzählen (Graf Verlag, 2011), which I also translated and which appeared as Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything (MacLehose, 2013); and Muldental (Graf Verlag, 2014), a collection of short stories that has not been translated into English. While the first novel was a critical success in Germany, Die Liebe not only received very positive reviews, it was also a commercial hit, making it to the top of the Spiegel bestseller list.

The novel, which is centred on Leipzig, deals with five women in their forties, all of them connected in some way. The individual stories lay bare their messy lives, throwing a spotlight on their failed relationships in the past as well as complicated ones in the present. What becomes very evident, moreover, is that these women are not mere victims of toxic male behaviour, but that they are to a considerable extent the agents of their own misfortune. These shades of nuance in the storytelling, reflecting its keen psychological realism, make for a compelling read.  

            Although Leipzig features prominently in Die Liebe, giving it a strong sense of place, the stories themselves have a far wider reach. The dilemmas and responsibilities faced by these modern, middle-aged women will be familiar to all western societies, and in this respect the author has created a novel with global resonance and appeal. As such, it should come as no surprise that the book is being translated into eighteen languages.

Commercial considerations

            I see our job as members of the New Books in German committee not only to select the very best literature coming out of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but also to highlight those books that might be commercially successful in translation. To say that publishing is a business is to state the obvious, but financial considerations have never been more critical in an industry which is struggling to survive in today’s world. And whereas a great book ought to be a great book in any language, this seldom converts into dazzling sales figures. If translated fiction of high literary merit but with limited popular appeal is to have a future, especially with the larger houses, it needs to be subsidised by books that are competitive on the market.

            Even so, there is no guarantee that a more commercial work from another language will do well here. I have lost count of the number of novels I’ve translated that appear in English with the words ‘international bestseller’ on the cover, but which have performed well below par in the UK. There may be a number of reasons for this, although examples to the contrary – Stieg Larsson, Elena Ferrante, to name just two – prove that the prospects for fiction in translation are not hopeless. What is more, publishers here do continue to buy books from abroad; I would be out of a job otherwise. And some – mainly smaller – presses have even made translated fiction the core of their business.

Germany’s history

Returning our focus to German-language fiction, can we identify specific elements that particularly stand out to those of us involved in the publishing process, with a view to finding a sizeable readership in the English-speaking world?

            In the first instance it is tempting to consider any work that engages with Germany’s history, particularly that of the twentieth century (with my academic background I am especially drawn to such books). The success in translation of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone/Alone in Berlin, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back show the fascination and appetite that persist amongst readers for books relating to the Nazi dictatorship, much to the chagrin of those who wish we could move on from Hitler and the Third Reich. And yet this relatively short historical period has cast such a long shadow on the world since that it would be naïve to think it could vanish altogether from contemporary German writing (perhaps we could exempt Swiss–German literature here). Moreover, some more recent examples have probed the less obvious aspects of the period. Strikingly, both Paulus Hochgatterer’s The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero and Arno Geiger’s Under the Drachenwand, for example, are set in rural Austria in 1944–45 and examine the tensions in communities riven by the harsh realities of war in a dictatorship. Steven Uhly’s masterpiece Kingdom of Twilight, meanwhile, takes the war as the starting point of a forty-year odyssey that explores themes of dislocation, both geographical and emotional, and exposes the vulnerability and mutability of identity.

Berlin

            Berlin continues to exert a fascination on the anglophone world, both as a contemporary city and a historical setting. Recent examples of the former include Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, featuring a cast of atomised characters reacting to a fast-changing city; and Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go. Went. Gone., set in East Berlin, which looks at an aging academic’s response to the migrant crisis. Historical Berlin is equally well represented. For its Weimar incarnation we have Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath crime series, which has been adapted for the television series Babylon Berlin. Simon Urban’s Plan D, meanwhile, is a counterfactual thriller set in 2011, in which the GDR still exists and the Berlin Wall is still standing. Maxim Voland’s Die Republik, to be published this October in Germany, is another thriller that makes use of alternative history. In this instance, the GDR controls the entire territory of Germany save for West Berlin.

Fresh voices

            An intriguing and prominent feature of the contemporary German literary scene is the output from a generation of writers with a foothold in more than one culture and who often write in a language that is not their mother tongue. Their works add a whole new perspective to twenty-first-century German literature and also open up the question of what it means to be German in the post-1989 era. These writers include Nino Haratischwili, whose epic The Eighth Life tells the story of several generations of a Georgian family throughout the twentieth century. Her fellow Caucasian, Olga Grjasnowa, was born in Baku and only started learning German when she was eleven. Two of her novels have been published in English: All Russians Love Birch Trees and City of Jasmine. Saša Stanišić was a refugee from the Bosnian War, fleeing with his family to Germany in 1992. His first novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, has already been translated in English, while Herkunft, which won the German Book Prize in 2019, will be published by Jonathan Cape. Two other young writers, neither of whom has yet been translated into English, are worth a mention here: Karosh Taha, originally from Iraq, whose Im Bauch der Königin examines the immigrant experience in Germany from the contrasting, sometimes conflicting perspectives of a Kurdish boy and girl; and Ivna Žic, who was born in Zagreb but grew up in Zürich, and whose novella Die Nachkommene poses the question of whether belonging to two cultures means you are actually at home in neither.

Breaking down barriers

            These fresh voices from other parts of the world have added even greater variety to fiction in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, giving English-language publishers a wealth of choice, both literary and commercial. It is frequently heard that UK and US readers harbour a prejudice against literature in translation, which is not found in other countries. The examples I gave earlier – to which we could add Jo Nesbø, Joël Dicker and Fredrik Backman, amongst others – would imply that this is not necessarily the case. But it also suggests that publishing more popular works of translated fiction may be a way of breaking down those barriers that do persist. Daniela Krien’s Love in Five Acts is a novel that combines literary flair with commercial potential. It will be interesting to see whether its success in Germany can be replicated here.