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Wit & Whimsy: Translators recommend their favourite comic authors

We asked some of our favourite translators to recommend humorous books in German – some already translated into English, some ripe for translation.

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‘Translating Pedro Lenz is always a challenge. But one I love. His writing is laugh-out-loud funny one minute, break-your-heart sad the next. As for the humour: Pedro felt very much at home on his six-month residency in Glasgow. We get him. He gets us. It’s great to hear audiences laugh now at all the right places. It’s great to read enthusiastic reviews in the Guardian, Financial Times and TLS. But even more encouraging were the responses of Swiss audiences, even very early on when I only ever had the first 600 words to read to them. People queued to tell me they’d buy the audio-book! – Who says humour doesn’t travel?’

Donal McLaughlin writes short stories and translates novels. He was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award 2013 (USA). In 2015, he was awarded the Max Geilinger Prize in Zurich for his translations of Swiss fiction.

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Yoko Tawada specialises in deadpan humour, especially in her new novel just out in English, Memoirs of a Polar Bear. Real-life polar bears who speak perfect Russian and German (having forgotten their native North Polish) and move in human society as authors and performers – what could go wrong? For one thing it’s always too warm out, the packets of salmon sold in the shops are too skimpy, the Kafka stories the local bookseller keeps pushing on one are full of misunderstandings, it’s hard to get a decent role as an actress, and discrimination against white fur is rampant. What’s a bear to do?’

Susan Bernofsky directs the translation program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her translations include works by Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, Jenny Erpenbeck, Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse. The recipient of numerous awards (most recently the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize), she blogs about translation at and is currently at work on a biography of Walser.

Bulloch photo‘I had great fun translating Timur Vermes’s novel Er ist wieder da, which appeared in English as Look Who’s Back. This transgressive satire went down a storm in Germany, despite the unease which many readers felt at empathising with the first-person Hitler narrator. An appropriate subject for comedy? Absolutely, especially as the humour shows up the vapidity of our society that prioritises the medium over the message, and highlights the dangers inherent in such an attitude. The book was never going to be as controversial in the English-speaking world, but it has sold over 200,000 copies over all formats and I hope has helped dispel the myth that the Germans have no sense of humour.’

Jamie Bulloch’s translations include Steven Uhly’s Kingdom of Twilight, Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back and Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, which won him the Schlegel-Tieck Prize and was runner up in the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He is also the author of Karl Renner: Austria.

Starritt photo‘The hero of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand is trapped in a premise from shlocky daytime TV: total amnesia. It is so unlikely that almost everyone believes the poor man is lying. Blundering around a luridly chaotic Francophone North African colony in the 1970s, he excites the misguided and hostile interest of policemen, criminals, spies and psychologists. In attempts to clear up who is he and what relation he bears to the murder of four tourists, mistakes, misapprehensions and misfortunes accumulate until they reveal themselves as a state of being. Via kidnap, violence and torture, the novel is amusingly horrifying; horrifyingly amusing.’

Alexander Starritt‘s debut novel, The Beast, a loving satire of tabloid journalism, will be published by Head of Zeus in September. He has translated Stefan Zweig’s A Chess Story and Arthur Schnitzler’s Late Fame, both for Pushkin Press.

Calleja photoAward-winning, charismatic and metamorphosing stage actor and writer Joachim Meyerhoff’s trilogy of memoirs (with a fourth on the way) are honest and fascinating books with a lively streak of self-deprecating humour running through them. Though my favourite is the second in the series, ‘When Will It Be Like It Never Was Again’, it’s the third and most recent book that contains most of the laughs. ‘Oh, This Void, This Unspeakable Void’ has the already intriguing combination of Meyerhoff leaving adolescence for adulthood, attending drama school and having to live with his grandparents. His actress grandmother is a hilarious diva, and Meyerhoff’s retellings of his various humiliations at drama school make you cringe and snigger at the same time.’

Jen Calleja is a writer and literary translator. She is currently translating Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel (Peirene Press) and Paul Cézanne’s Pixels by Wim Wenders (Faber & Faber).

‘A lot of what we find funny is sad and wrong on the face of it, or just plain strange, in Astrid Rosenfeld’s world. Tone is key. It is the way you tell them. You can also read them any way you want. You’re just more likely to laugh if the tone of a description allows you to. A lightness of touch is required, good timing, stage management, honest observation and a feel for the ridiculous – the stuff you couldn’t make up. Brave writers such as Astrid Rosenfeld acknowledge that bizarre, ridiculous things are grotesquely intertwined with ‘heavy’ subjects in reality. The damaged childhood of the characters in Else Ungeheuer, the machinations of Nazi-occupied Poland in Adams Erbe include funny moments. One critic described this humour as “close to the boundaries of good taste.” Damn right. Where else would humour operate? Humour flaunts ‘should’. And the bravery consists precisely in not rounding off a risky narrative with ‘but seriously’. We are no more forced to laugh than to cry. Both are possible.

In Kristof Magnusson’s world there is less outlandishness, more of the everyday daftness of folk. I thought he had made up the pepper mill with Peugeot mechanism in Das war ich nicht. Google tells me Peugeot really do make exceptionally efficient grinders, but frankly there is no reason for such a thing to exist, and when his character realises this, and that she owns one, she is catapulted into a mid-life crisis. In the same tone Magnusson describes how a young banker’s antics topple an entire bank, avoidable you would think, but plausible apparently, so plausible it happened. And we really shouldn’t be laughing.’

Steph Morris was poet in residence at Bonnington Square gardens last year, and has translated writers ranging from Brigitte Reimann to Martin Suter, both of whom can be very funny.