by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Authors Herta Müller (Nobel Prize for Literature, 2009) and Durs Grünbein (here in Book Post) read at “Sprachlos die Sprache verteidigen [Speechless, Defending Speech]: A Reading for Ukraine,” an event on February 26 organized by Surhkhamp Verlag editor Katharina Raabe featuring the work of Yuri Andrukhovych, Yevgenia Belorusets, Yuri Durkot, Elena Fanailova, Alissa Ganieva, Artur Klinau, Kateryna Mishchenko, Valzhyna Mort, Katja Petrowskaja, Sasha Marianna Salzmann, Maria Stepanova, and Serhiy Zhadan at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. Photos: Gerald Matzka/picture alliance via Getty Images)
How does writing make it out of one language and culture and into another? In America, as we’ve noted here before, only 3 percent of the work published each year originated in another language, and that includes cookbooks and textbooks and the like. Many writers of global reputation owe their presence before the huge American audience to small presses operating on a shoestring—if they are present here at all. At a symposium I attended recently, academics and small publishers faced off a bit over the difficulties small presses face providing students with the texts of major writers that academics reasonably assume should be readily available for their syllabuses. The work of keeping American civilization in conversation with the rest of the world is carried out on friable, shifting ground.
It is not this way everywhere. At the same symposium was Katharina Raabe, the East European editor of the venerable German publisher Suhrkamp, hardly a boutique enterprise. Katharina described how she set up her Berlin editorial outpost in 1993 as a manifestation of the larger project of reunification: as Berlin and Germany brought their halves together, so too did Europe, and Katharina began travelling around the hitherto little known east as a literary emissary within the larger undertaking of integrating the western and eastern worlds. She described her process as learning to “look at Europe and ourselves with the eyes of the Other,” i. e., Europe’s formerly Soviet eastern half. (I was reminded of the discovery, when I was working on a Notebook a while back about European supports for publishing and bookselling, that the European Union sees funding translation as part of a larger mission of fostering peaceful coexistence among nations.) Katharina spoke specifically of her encounter with Ukrainian literature, its setting in “the ruins of perished Empires” the names of whose cities “resound to German ears: Stanislau, Lemberg, Brody, Drohobych, Czernowitz—places in Galicia, inhabited by Jews, multilingual and multicultural, charged with literary heritage: Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz, Paul Celan, and many others,” places which became “a major site of the Holocaust”—a locus, then, “of Habsburg nostalgia and German guilt.”
Katharina’s first Ukrainian author, poet Yuri Andrukhovych, introduced her to other Ukrainian writers, and she travelled extensively in Ukraine, meeting people (many of whom spoke German already) and forging a necessarily new community of translators among young Ukrainian scholars of German literature. She described encountering Kharkiv poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan at a Lviv gathering of the “Translatorium,” a group of poets and translators from Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine that met in work sessions circulating among their different countries, noting that Zhadan would include his translations of German-language writers Bertold Brecht and Paul Celan in his future reading tours through the Donbas war zone. Andrukhovych wrote an afterword to Zhadan’s first book in German (2002) describing him as a “Rimbaud from Kharkiv” and “post proletarian punk”—a framing embraced by the German press. (One thinks of how much we could be doing by analogy with the languages of our own continent, Spanish signally. Our partner bookstore this month, Deep Vellum in border-proximate Dallas, sees cultivating Spanish-language connections, in books and in person, as a vital piece of its mission.)
In 2015, Katharina was looking for contributors to a special issue of a magazine responding to the invasion of Crimea (she has also, growing out of her network of literary contacts in Eastern Europe, published anthologies on the Maidan uprising, and war in Srebrenica, Kosovo, and Chechnya). She remembered an essay she had read by the Russian poet and editor Maria Stepanova, called “The Dead Waters of History,” describing “the misuse of memory” and “the fabrications of a glorious Russian past” that “deprived Russian citizens of the ability to form their own vision of the future … that is more than a prolongation of an ideologically pre-shaped and officially promoted past.” She approached Stepanova to contribute to the issue and then later to expand these ideas, on which Stepanova had long been ruminating, into a a work they collaboratively developed with the German translator Olga Radetzkaja into what became In Memory of Memory, a book that was then published and celebrated in multiple languages. Katharina and Suhrkamp try to make a habit of holding world rights for their authors (an old-fashioned practice, mostly nudged out now by agents). This allows them to work with writers from other cultures to help develop their work for an international audience over time, preparing the ground abroad to receive and appreciate them. She speaks of creating circles of books, “book neighbors,” within her list to give readers a deliberate entré into unfamiliar worlds. Robust resources of grants and foundations in Germany and Eastern Europe help her to organize readings, panels, musical events that create a kind of setting for the jewel of an unfamiliar author. Katharina’s readers in Berlin and beyond have been reading the work of serious Ukrainian writers, maintained in print, for twenty years; readers around the world of Stepanova’s book were alert to the publication, in multiple European languages, of her editorial in mid-March recognizing the terrible precedents in distorted history that undergird the current invasion.
In recent weeks Katharina has gathered her large circle into powerful international protests (here and here), drawn from a pan-European world of literature and scholarship. The scholar Irina Paperno said introducing Katharina that she considers such work, along with searching for funds to support fleeing Ukrainians and those who remain behind, even providing beds and blankets for refugees arriving in Berlin, “a duty of the editor.”
When I wrote last month about our Spring partner bookstore, the independent, not-for-profit Deep Vellum, I noted that its founder, book publisher Will Evans, who is constantly hustling for his outfit’s survival, also takes an “in the round” approach to translation: creating a literary setting in Dallas, with publisher, bookstore, events, and local partnerships, to foster local receptivity to cultural expression from around the world and across the border and to bring literature’s big voice to Dallas through a broad cast of authors. Katharina’s work too shows us that publishing across borders can and must entail so much more than burying rights to one bestseller from X country at corporate-sponsored bookfair and underpaying a translator in a rush to bring it out in a small, unsupported edition that will soon disappear.
Katharina tells me that a constriction of serious book reviewing in the German press, much like our own, is making to harder to find audiences for unexpected work. A narrowing hall of mirrors, in which we are fed only what we expect, where commerce alone—commerce which depends on expectations—dictates what gets seen at scale, creates an ever-shrinking intellectual palate; we hardly realize, in our big, various country, on how few people’s energetic labor we depend for news of the rest of the world.
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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