Literary agent Tanja Howarth, and Project Director Sarah Hemens recall the infancy of New Books in German and look ahead to its future.
Sarah Harrington Hemens (SH): Bärbel Becker from the Frankfurt Book Fair remembers the excitement that you and Rosemary Smith generated at the Fair back in 1996 when you launched NBG. You created a real buzz around German-language literature. When you look back at the distance German-language literature has travelled in that quarter century, how do you feel?
Tanja Howarth (TH): Like having finished a marathon…relieved and proud. One of the books we put under the spotlight in that first edition was Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. Such an important story needed to reach a wide readership; we knew the issues it raised would engage people around the world. I am pleased that, since that first issue, NBG has been able to play its part in highlighting many titles which have won over readers in different countries. We have found books that showcase great writing and deserve international success.
SH: There have been notable successes for German-language non-fiction in English. It must have been thrilling for you to have been involved in enabling an English-language version of the Panama Papers?
TH: It was. The Guardian newspaper described the book as ‘an almost perfect tale for the 21st century – the failure of democracy, the triumph of commercial power and greed, greed, greed’. The Panama Papers investigation went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. The two Süddeutsche Zeitung journalists, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, who first received the leaked data, wrote the book at a considerable pace. It was such an important story – there needed to be an English-language version. The right group of people came together to create one including the four translators who worked simultaneously on the text to get the book out on time.
SH: NBG has also been good at bringing people together. As Editor, my predecessor Charlotte Ryland built up a passionate, knowledgeable and energetic group of people around New Books in German, developing a network of publishers and translators who could work together effectively to champion books. She put over fifty translators through a really practical literary translation training programme; fostering skills and community for professionals starting out.
TH: One of the rewards of NBG is meeting and working with people, whose talent is to choose books with international appeal. We work democratically – from German-language publishers submitting books, to our book assessors and readers, and to our Editorial Committees in London and New York.
SH: We are fortunate to have such lively Editorial Committees. We host committee meetings, attended by translators, editors, scouts, agents, reviewers and representatives of cultural organisations and embassies, to discuss the books that have been submitted. Our funding guarantee, which promises translation funding assistance to English-language publishers who buy translation rights for titles featured in NBG, is of tremendous benefit to publishers. Although the Steering Committee was well aware of New Books in German’s value, it was decided to explore its future direction, which resulted in a consultation over the summer of 2019.
TH: From the consultation it emerged that the future of NBG lies online. There will no longer be a printed magazine, but a newly designed website.
SH: I spoke to over forty people over the summer of 2019. A further hundred filled in an online survey. We are really grateful to everyone who took part. Our new website will be the main means by which we will spread the word about the books we have selected. The site will carry book reviews, along with feature articles, interviews and other information. We know there will be people who will miss the twice-yearly arrival of a magazine to read…
TH: Yes, I am one of them! It was such a beautifully designed publication, but the new website will be exciting and timely.
SH: We will be making sure we keep up the high standards in reviews and articles that readers are used to from the magazine. We are looking to develop a website that is easy and enjoyable to browse, but also a site where you can quickly hone in on information you might be looking for and share that effortlessly with colleagues or friends.
TH: The website will really help with that sharing of information. I am always keen to stress the international scope and influence of the New Books in German project. The well-written and reliable information on German-language books that appeared in the magazine had an enormous impact, for example, in some countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The website will help to bolster that international reach.
SH: We are focusing on what is important to each group of our readers as we design the site. We are looking to launch in the autumn. The website will be backed up by a programme of emails and social media to let people know about the books that are of interest to them.
TH: Like many others, I look forward to seeing the new site later this autumn. I know we will use it to continue to profile the very best German-language books, just as we have for the last quarter century.