katy derbyshire

Irina Liebmann: Berliner Mietshaus

A review by Katy Derbyshire

I’m a major fan of the writer Irina Liebmann, especially her dogged devotion to one particular street in Berlin, about which more in a later post. The very first of her books that I read, however, was Berliner Mietshaus. It has been extremely cold in Berlin lately, the kind of weather that requires you to curl up near a heat source with a familiar book, and this was that old favourite.

The premise is simple enough: In 1979, Irina Liebmann chose one building in the East Berlin borough of Prenzlauer Berg and interviewed everybody living in it, then wrote down what they told her about their lives, their homes and their jobs. It opens up a detailed doll’s house, a portrait of a particular place at a particular time painted by its inhabitants, climbing the stairs from one flat to the next, crossing the yard and doing the same in the rear building.

Housing stock in Prenzlauer Berg, 1984; Bundesarchiv

Liebmann describes her work since 1988, when she left East Germany for the West, as ‘non-fictional prose that is always also lyrical and dramatic.’ And we can see the seeds of that style here in her first book. It was originally planned as a reportage series for the GDR’s Wochenpost, but the newspaper ended up not printing several of the pieces (too negative) and then discontinuing the feature entirely. And so it was first published in East Germany in 1982 by a small publisher in Halle – to not much acclaim, as Liebmann explains in an afterword. The book, she writes, was not affirmative enough for the politicians and not critical enough for the critics. Now, however, it serves as a unique and revealing monument to that time and place.

Each chapter loosely follows the same pattern, starting with the writer’s approach to the tenants in the flat. She knocks on their doors, explains what she’s doing, and usually they invite her in quite willingly and talk freely. They offer her drinks – coffee, vodka, beer, wine – and sometimes food, often cigarettes. The TV might be on, half-watched ice skating or science fiction. Children eat their tea, wash up in the bathroom or the kitchen and are brought in to say good night to the visitor. We don’t get a sense that anyone feels threatened; they’re clearly comfortable airing all sorts of gripes about life in the GDR. When the conversation turned to politics, however, Liebmann writes, ‘I put down my pencil,’ and she was at pains to protect everyone’s anonymity by keeping the address to herself, shuffling the residents around the flats and borrowing the shops on the ground floor (lingerie and haberdashery; a bakery) from a different building.

In the GDR (unlike today), Prenzlauer Berg was a working-class neighbourhood with a fairly bad reputation; in the early 80s, many people moved out to new tower blocks in the outskirts, complete with lifts and central heating. The tenants are largely workers, some of them in jobs that no longer exist, but there are also students, a photographer, a couple who make marionettes for a living and a copy editor eager to share his literary preferences and mental health history. We meet elderly women who experienced the 1918 revolution, for example, and of course the Nazis. One claims her father can’t have been a true believer since everyone had to join the party; Liebmann lets this clearly untrue statement stand without editorialising. One woman’s sister used to be a cleaner for the writer Alfred Döblin’s brother; she’s lost the two paintings of his that she inherited. Or perhaps they never existed – who can say? Liebmann writes that she never questioned what people told her, was more interested in what they’d tell a stranger spontaneously.

Another long-term tenant, Frau N., remembers receiving a note from her family’s Jewish doctor:

We have to fall in with kit and caboodle tomorrow morning. Dr Neihoff. […] On Metzer Strasse, opposite his practice, the N.s stood and watched the next morning as the old doctor carried his suitcase out of the building and climbed onto a truck. It was a last farewell. There was nothing we could do, says Frau N.’

Like Walter Kempowski or Svetlana Alexievich, Irina Liebmann collages other people’s statements but lends them structure and context – and like Alexievich, she has an unusual gift for getting people to tell their stories. The book’s literary quality lies partly in its keen eye for tragedy and comedy.

We meet a number of confident young women and learn the strategic ins and outs of marriage, divorce, child benefit and housing policy in the GDR. They seem very wise for their years, often working mothers in their early twenties, independent whether they’re in a relationship or not. Here’s Liebmann’s touching farewell from Sylvia S., who works behind the counter at a butcher’s shop. When she had her son Stephan, her employer couldn’t arrange childcare to start with so she didn’t marry his dad, because single mothers get more benefits that allowed her to stay at home. Now she gets up at 4:30, takes her boy to nursery for 6 and starts work at 6:30. She’s on leave when Liebmann visits; her partner’s off sick.

‘Sylvia puts her pale-blue anorak back on and she and I leave the flat, down the dark corridor, open the wooden door of the front building – the passage is damp so you don’t hear the plaster crumbling – say goodbye on the street, head in different directions; I pause after three steps and turn around. Far ahead, the pale-blue anorak turns too, and Sylvia waves at me for a long time. She’s 22 years old.’

I could go on; the tenants feel genuine, some funny and positive, some dull or irritating. The moments of friction are fascinating too, particularly the encounter with two theology students, an academic discipline often frowned upon in East Germany. It’s hard to say whether the book’s poignancy stems entirely from the fact that these people’s world has disappeared. I think Liebmann’s melancholy style, nascent here but already recognisable in passages like the one above, also plays a part. I’m sure I’ll be re-reading Berliner Mietshaus for years to come.

Autumn Awards

Sporting trophies in blue-and-pink light
Photo by Meghan Hessler on Unsplash

A round-up by Katy Derbyshire

In the German-speaking world it’s not just autumn leaves that rain down as the days get shorter – literary awards come thick and fast as well. They tend to be national or regional and a lot of them are named after dead white men. Here’s a little run-down of 2023’s autumn winners.

The German Book Prize went to Tonio Schachinger (31) for Echtzeitalter (Rowohlt Verlag) – a modern-day tale of public schoolboys, set in Vienna. At €25K, this isn’t the biggest pot in terms of prize money, but the enormous marketing buzz that comes with it encourages comparisons to the Booker Prize.

The Swiss Book Prize (for books written in German) went to Christian Haller for Sich lichtende Nebel (Luchterhand), a 128-page novella intertwines the lives of the physicist Werner Heisenberg and a fictional character mourning the loss of his wife. Fun fact: the 80-year-old Haller studied not physics but zoology. He walks away with CHF 30K, so a big chunk more than the German winner. Who is Austrian.

The €20K Austrian Book Prize, meanwhile, found its way to the country’s most heavily-bearded writer, Clemens J. Setz (41), for Monde vor der Landung (Suhrkamp). Another one taking a real historical figure as its springboard, this 528-page whopper looks at contrarianism and alternative facts through the lens of an early 20th-century religious community leader.

Let’s stick with Suhrkamp a while, who do have a nose for award-winners. They’ve brought home a couple more prizes this season, starting with the Bavarian Book Prize for Deniz Utlu’s Vaters Meer, about a son’s memories of his lost father in Turkey and Germany. With this one, the judges have a half-hour public discussion to choose the winner but if they can’t agree within that time, no one gets anything. This has never actually happened. Deniz (40) got €10K and a porcelain lion.

Porcelain lions. Photo © Yves Krier

The other Suhrkamp winner is Lutz Seiler, who’s been really cleaning up. The 60-year-old East German – published in English with aplomb by And Other Stories – got the €30K Berlin Literature Prize, which entails a guest lectureship, and also the €50K Big Serious Writer Prize (not really: it’s the Georg Büchner Prize, but that doesn’t distinguish it very well from the other prizes awarded by the German Academy of Language and Literature, also named after dead men). Seiler’s tax office won’t be rubbing its hands in joyful anticipation, though, since both awards are for his life’s work and so not subject to income tax!

Enough of the deserving dudes – three cool prizes have gone to women writers this autumn, too. And I’ve really enjoyed all of the winning books, so I’m pretty happy. Teresa Präauer had threatened to fall into the always-the-bridesmaid category, making shortlist after shortlist but never hitting the jackpot – actually this allegory is funnier for men, but never mind. Now, though, the beehived 44-year-old got to take home the Bremen Literature Prize (€25K) for Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert (Wallstein) – hooray! You may recall my jubilant review. Very much looking forward to getting my hands on it in English one day, from Pushkin Press.

Next up, the Aspekte Literature Prize, a €10K award for debut novels, with a solid reputation for picking high-class acts. This year’s went to Charlotte Gneuss for Gittersee (Fischer) an intimidating story of teenage lives in the GDR. Born in 1992, Gneuss obviously never experienced the East German state first-hand and there was a storm in a teacup over that, but I didn’t find it diminished her writing at all. Oh, and I’ve just seen the book also got the €15K Jürgen Ponto Prize too, another one for debut fiction. Rights have sold to five countries so far, but not English-language.

Last but by no means least, the Wilhelm Raabe Prize went to Judith Hermann, for Wir hätten uns alles gesagt (also Fischer) and all her other books as well. A chunky €30K for the 53-year-old Berliner from the City of Braunschweig and the highbrow-not-funky national radio station Deutschlandfunk. Did I mention I’ll be translating that very same title for Mercier Press? It’s a complex book about writing and life, her most personal to date, that veers between storytelling and essay. I happen to love it.

Bunch of flowers. Photo © Stadt Braunschweig / Daniela Nielsen

Dinner for Five

Teresa Präauer: Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert

A review by Katy Derbyshire

Seeing as this is an old-school blog, I must start with a full disclosure: ten years ago I went Dutch with Teresa Präauer, drinking beer, Fernet Branca and pastis. It was a delightful evening, cementing my view of the Austrian author as a very cool person. In order not to dim that rosy glow, I didn’t read any more of her work, despite having loved her first two novels, Für den Herrscher aus Übersee and Johnny and Jean – until now.

Foolish? Obviously. Kochen im falschen Jahrhundert is fucking fantastic. Translation rights have sold to Pushkin Press, so you’ll be able to find out for yourself at some point. It was nominated for the German Book Prize and shortlisted for the Austrian and Bavarian Book Prizes.

The scenario: a woman has a new Danish dining table in her newish flat. She invites over her male partner, a married heterosexual couple, and a Swiss man and his girlfriend, but the latter can’t make it. So there are five people around the oiled-wood table for that quintessential middle-class activity: a dinner party. Green salad, quiche Lorraine, crémant: “At some point, everyone in their circle of friends had stopped drinking either champagne or Sekt, though both were sparkling wines, and now only ever drank crémant.”

As you might expect, Präauer works with the beloved trope of getting her characters drunk and seeing what happens. You’ll know it from Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage (which I despised), or from Eugen Ruge’s novel In Times of Fading Light, or indeed from mainland Europe’s favourite British skit, Dinner for One. It’s a fun thing to watch; as Byron wrote: “…it was first silent, then talky, then argumentative, then disputatious, then unintelligible, then altogethery, then inarticulate, and then drunk.” However, Präauer takes a playful sledgehammer to the proceedings in several ways.

First of all, she lets her narrative break down and start again a few times, each time adjusting it to banal reality. So instead of punctual arrivals, smooth conversation and complicated recipes, we get latecomers, awkward silences and, well, quiche – to name just a few variants. What appeals most to me, though, is that our hostess is new to all this bougie hosting business. Her anxious perfectionism arises from class insecurities, and we see the guests mainly through her eyes, although she’s not a first-person narrator. Präauer gives us snapshots of the hostess’s mother and grandmother cooking and eating very differently – hence the “wrong century” of the title. There are food memories of her own, addressed in the second person: not having any salt when you moved into your first flat, cooking frozen fish with tinned tomatoes, your grandparents distilling fruit brandy in their cellar, eating yoghurt with walnuts and honey on holiday in Greece.

We end up with a portrait of today’s concerns, the things middle-class people talk about at dinner parties: women in jazz, empowerment, language, lipstick, parenting, utopias or lack thereof. We see how the hostess wants her home to be, her precise style choices all terribly now. (Remember all that tiresome interior décor stuff in A Little Life? Like that, but meaningful.) We get an eyeful of how heterosexual relationships work these days, with some norms eroding but some firmly in place. We get the disputatious, the altogethery, the inarticulate and the drunk, as the narrative itself gets increasingly raucous and sexy. It’s ironic and knowing – and it’s all very funny, in all its permutations.

There’s one chapter towards the end that I might have done without – a little too explainy for my taste – but the ending itself made up for it. This is a book for foodies and for those who aspire to be great hosts and fall short, for anyone riddled with self-doubt in social situations, and for people who like watching other people get drunk. It inspired me to search in my phone for photos of food, hence the pictures accompanying this review. In other words, it’s fucking fantastic.

What Katy Did in Frankfurt

By Katy Derbyshire

I haven’t done a write-up of the Frankfurt Book Fair for a few years, and this time was a little different; after two significantly smaller fairs dominated by Covid, this year’s was bigger and very much about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Amid the horror and helplessness over events in Israel and Palestine, focusing on the Book Fair’s reaction to the conflict felt more manageable than staring into the abyss of heartbreaking violence as a whole. For all our faith in the power of literature, there is realistically very little that even the world’s largest meeting of publishing people can do to end terrorism and bombardments on the ground.

And so there was a lot of talk about the Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s effective disinvitation by the book fair – or was it by Litprom, which is chaired by the boss of the book fair? The general consensus among people I spoke to was that an individual writer – especially one based in Berlin – should not be punished for Hamas’ actions. A number of writers cancelled their own participation in reaction to a perceived silencing of Palestinian voices; some of those who attended wore T-shirts featuring Shibli’s face and the words WHAT IS LITERATURE FOR? I thought cancelling Shibli’s award ceremony was a pointless and unfair gesture, and PEN Berlin thought the same and instead held a joint reading from her novel, translated into German by Günther Orth.

Writer Tomer Dotan-Dreyfus. Photo: Anna Jung

What else happened? The German Book Prize went to the Austrian writer Tonio Schachinger for Echtzeitalter, taking a lot of people by surprise. Including me; having listened to a recording of the book’s launch, I now know it’s about a boy at a Viennese private school and the computer game Age of Empires 2. What with Schachinger’s previous novel zooming in on a professional footballer, I’m pretty sure his and my interests don’t overlap much. And then he went and said in an interview with Der Standard that asking him why he’d switched from an independent Austrian publisher to a big German one was like asking a footballer why he’d transferred from Admira to Real Madrid (I assume this means more to football fans than to me):

“It’s not just about financial clout, it’s also a question of quality. The best editors work for the best publishing houses. There’s not one single argument for making that decision differently if you get the chance.”

Which, as you can imagine, upset a few people.


My personal book fair? I had some great meetings with other translators and publishing people. I talked books and literary gossip and hairstyles and class consciousness with far-flung friends and new acquaintances. I was relieved to find that after a few years’ absence, the faces in the international publishing community have aged as visibly as I have. I absolutely judged entire publishing empires on how their editors treated little translator me. I stayed well away from the schmoozing, wheeling and dealing over extortionate drinks at the Frankfurter Hof hotel.

And I visited my pals from Seagull Books, whose German and Swiss lists are looking pretty amazing. They have a lot of heavy-hitting dudes but also work by Eva Menasse, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Judith Kuckart and Katja Lange-Müller. The India and UK-based publishing house produces a lavishly bound catalogue every year featuring original writing commissioned and translated just for that purpose; this year’s uses offcuts from a dressmaker that would otherwise have been thrown away. Editor, designer and all-round lovely person Sunandini Banerjee’s digital collages round it all off; I have a special shelf dedicated to my growing collection of these things of beauty. This year, it took a couple of Kolkatans to point me in the direction of the poet Durs Grünbein’s wife’s whisky and cigar shop, walking distance from my house.

I also went to three parties, one per night: Fischer Verlag’s utterly heaving reception for the international crowd, where I huddled in a corner chatting to other UK translators, followed by a ride home on a Vespa. The helmet may have crushed my hairstyle, but the thrill of leaning into the corners while tipsy on free wine was definitely worth it. Next up was a little drinks party for the fab new German literary mag Delfi, attended only by the coolest of kids (and me and my pals) in a tiny space plus the pavement outside, accessed via Frankfurt’s scariest street. Drunken ideas for saving the world are some of the best ideas for saving the world, I learned.

And then there was the Voland & Quist party, fast becoming the place to be if you like to dance and don’t mind paying for your own drinks. I got to do a shift on the door, where our fantastic bouncer Teddy persuaded people to smile while they blagged their way in. This may or may not be the way the Berghain door works; I wouldn’t know. I was confused, by the way, when an American publisher informed me that Berghain was the only place to dance in Berlin. What about all the scuzzy venues I’ve been frequenting for the past three decades?

Sadly, the German literary community once again failed to wear anything brighter than navy blue, leaving me to stand out like a sore thumb in my 70s-style-Dolly-Parton-with-political-opinions outfit. Surely, dear German literary community, a time must come when you too don bright shades of polyester mix and live a little, sartorially. I shall continue to set a good example – and I expect you to buck up your wardrobe act next year. Exhausted and offended by other people not being exactly the same as me, I left at about 2 am before my misanthropist streak really kicked in.

Next year, I hope my facial recognition skills magically improve and I spend less time pretending to know who people are. And I hope we have peace.

Outfit inspiration for the German literary community. Photo: Anna Jung

Welcome to Love German Books Mark II

If you’re a former fan of Love German Books, you might know what to expect here: news, reviews, random thoughts and gossip on books written in German. I wrote the blog for ten years from 2008 on, then ran out of steam. Now, though, it is here at V&Q Books in a more collaborative form. If you’d like to contribute, get in touch via the V&Q Books contact address.

Looking forward to writing and reading with you,

Katy Derbyshire

Translators’ Note: Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire on Selim Özdoğan’s The Blacksmith’s Daughter

The Blacksmith’s Daughter was our first co-translation, and proved to us not only that it can be done, but that it should be done! But how could two translators write one note for the back of the book? In dialogue, of course…

The Co-Translators in Conversation

Katy Derbyshire: This book has been with me a really long time, since it came out in German in 2005. That’s 15 years now – incredible! I remember it reminding me of Laura Ingalls Wilder, bizarrely, because of all the domestic detail and because of the way I really felt for the characters. I know it was one of the books that prompted my burning desire to translate literature, although back then I wasn’t in a position to get any translations published. But I made a big fat dossier about the book and sent it to British publishers, who had no idea who I was and either turned me down politely or didn’t respond.

How did you come to the book, Ayça, and can you remember your response to it?

Ayça Türkoğlu: I came to the book much later. Actually, Katy, it was through your blog. I spotted it again in The Edge of Heaven, one of my favourite Fatih Akın films, so I bought it and added it to my TBR pile, then forgot all about it for a while. I started reading it not long before you asked to co-translate it with me; it was an act of wish fulfilment, really. I remember I spent quite a lot of my first reading of the trilogy clutching my chest. I just love the sentimentality of it, I’m a real sucker for the Anatolian blues. I like the balance of foibles and virtues in every character, and how the story is peppered with these lit- tle village tales and bits of hearsay that I recognised from my own childhood (the baby and the safety pin, the man and the unfortunate dog…).

KD: I can definitely relate to the sentimentality appeal – our initial versions of the translation are dotted with comments by one or other of us saying basically: Awwwww!

AT: Did your approach to translating the book change in the 15(!) years between your finding the book and getting to translate it?

KD: I’m not sure how my approach changed over time. I like to hope I’ve honed my skills over the past decade and a half, so I was too scared to look at the very first translations I did from the book. But I felt a special kind of joy mixed with nostalgia for my younger self when I retranslated an early passage, about scrumping pears. I remembered agonizing over whether I could use that verb, scrumping, which back then I thought was very specific to English (how odd that German doesn’t have a single verb for stealing fruit off a tree…). I’ve learned in the meantime to use the riches of the language with fewer qualms – if we’re going to lose the occasional thing in translation, why not add extra flair where we can? You mention your own childhood memories of Turkey, Ayça, and they proved invaluable for our translation. Although Selim wrote the books with German-speakers in mind, he told me he hid subtle references to Turkish sayings and such, which Turkish-speakers would spot but I certainly couldn’t. Now we’ve re-embedded them – I hope – in a new version for Anglophone readers. Did you have Turkish-speakers in the back of your mind while you were translating, though?

AT: I think so. I could certainly hear certain people when reading some passages. I like that extra layer that’s available to Turkish-speakers in the text. Sometimes I’d get an inkling of what a sentence or an expression would be in Turkish and I’d translate that instead. Sometimes I’d find I responded differently to lines once I imagined them in Turkish, particularly the song lyrics that crop up. It was interesting to see the solutions we came up with for the Turkish pleasantries that English lacks, like the phrases used before a meal, or to greet someone who’s working.

Were there any sections of the book or aspects of Selim’s writing that you were apprehensive about translating before we started?

KD: I don’t think so! I think I was just raring to go after such a long wait… What I really wasn’t sure about was the co-translation process. I’d never shared a translation before except in workshop situations, where translating ends up so drawn out that it takes days to translate a single page. That’s a really valuable experience – because it makes everyone explain their word choices, advocate for certain tenses or prepositions, argue over punctuation… But it’s not viable for a book-length translation with a deadline attached! How on earth would we get a translation done well by two people in a fixed amount of time?

I asked a few people who have co-translated before but there didn’t seem to be a patent solution, and often it seemed rather hierarchical, with a junior and a senior translator, if you like. What I wanted was for the two of us to be on equal footing – we both bring different experiences, enthusiasms and backgrounds to the job and I hope they’ve flowed seamlessly into the text. And now – maybe because we divided the book up into quite short alternating chunks – I can’t necessarily distinguish the passages I translated from your sections, which I edited, and vice versa. Unless they made me cry. So it was a hugely positive experience and I think the result is a genuinely outstanding translation.

AT: Yes, I did wonder how the co-translation process would work – and I worried how you’d feel sharing a book you’d loved for so long with another translator! I can’t imagine I would have been as generous… I enjoyed working together so much, though. It was lovely to be able to share that instant feedback with another translator, to feel reassured that you’d made a good choice or just enjoy the other’s work. I loved how, every few pages, one of us would leave a little comment on some phrase or other saying, essentially, ‘Nice one.’ I also enjoyed the occasional bit of bitching when a character was misbehaving.

KD: Me too! What are your hopes for the book?

AT: Besides an English-language film adaptation by Fatih Akın, based on our translation…? I hope people come to love Gül and Timur as much as we do. Gül is such a survivor, the kind of woman almost everyone knows and loves but whose story never gets told. Timur is the archetypal Turkish father, fierce and soft in equal measure.

But what are your hopes, Katy? If that’s not cheating…

KD: It’s not cheating! Obviously, I’m totally with you on the film adaptation and on readers coming to love the characters. One other thing would be for the book to bounce back to Germany – often an English translation lends writers more respect in their own countries, and I hope that will be the case here, too. As I see it, Germany hasn’t sufficiently valued stories about the people whose labour helped build its economy in the 1960s and 70s – whether migrants or other workers – and I’d love for readers in Germany to rediscover this beautiful and important trilogy.

Berlin and London, September 2020

Translator’s Note: Katy Derbyshire on Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula

©Anja Pietsch

Our third translator’s note is by publisher-translator-blogmistress Katy Derbyshire, who enjoys referring to herself in the third person – another from our very first batch of books. Here, she asks the question: is anything really untranslatable?

The story of Paula’s translation is a long one. I first came across Sandra Hoffmann’s book when it won the Hans Fallada Prize, a German literary award for fiction with a political and social background. The premise of the book fascinated me and I swiftly got hold of it. What a devastating story, so beautifully told!

Sometimes translators read differently to other people. If I find myself trying to translate as I go along, that’s usually a good sign – that I want to take co-ownership of the book, put it into my own words. Here, though, there were two major hurdles. What to do with the Swabian dialect, so integral to the narrator’s emotions. And what on earth to do with the essential word schweigen, a notion that doesn’t exist in such compact form in English and yet crops up in the very first line.

The first step, though, was to invite Sandra Hoffmann to spend a week working with translators at the British Centre for Literary Translation’s summer school in 2018. I effectively passed on the conundrums to a fantastic group of emerging and early-career literary translators, who had five days to think deeply about them with Sandra’s advice and support. That was how the idea came about to retain some of the Swabian in the dialogue. When the groups read their excellent work aloud on the final day, the dialogue worked! And thankfully, having Sandra on hand helped us to decipher the meaning very easily and hear the sound in her own voice.

There followed a search for a UK publisher for a full translation. This has never been my strong point, but in my defence, it is difficult. Presses have restricted budgets and only so many slots, and taste varies wildly. Whatever the case, I didn’t find anyone who shared my massive enthusiasm. Ho hum, another one bites the dust. At least I don’t have to find a solution for schweigen.

Except then I had the idea of setting up an English-language imprint with a German publisher. Having found a sufficiently adventurous press, Voland & Quist, part of our initial conversation was my wish-list. Paula was at the very top of that list.

I’ll skip a bit because this is a translator’s note, not an emerging publisher’s note. Suffice to say, I did now have to find a solution for schweigen. The summer school participants had tackled it and found a very elegant way around it – after much discussion – but I felt I had to start anew and I wasn’t happy with anything I came up with.

I don’t really believe in the concept of ‘untranslatable words’. What we have to do is find ways to explain them or paraphrase them that don’t blow a hole in the original text. Likewise, ‘untranslatable books’ demand creative translations, reworkings, bold steps. Ownership on the part of the translator, if you will. It’s always an implicit part of our work to help readers understand a book’s cultural setting, by choosing words carefully and occasionally making discreet additions – inserting a gloss, to use the technical term. Saint Jerome, the horribly misogynist patron saint of translators, was a great fan of glosses in his biblical translations.

Could I do that in the first sentence? The German is:
Schweigen ist anders als still sein.
Rendered in the words English offers us, the literal translation would be something like:
Silence is different to being silent.
Which doesn’t cut it, does it?
After hours of fiddling with those first six words, and after moving on so I’d at least get started on finding the right voice for Sandra’s book, I returned to the beginning at the end. I came up with a very brief explanation for the word schweigen: ‘deliberately remaining silent’. And I built that into a sentence and a half in the tone I had found for the narrator, right at the beginning of the novel:
We have a word in German: schweigen. It means deliberately remaining silent; it is different to merely being quiet. Or that’s the final version, after workshopping the first page with my ‘translation lab’ in Berlin and after an excellent edit by my esteemed colleague Florian Duijsens. A sentence and a half that took over a year to translate. Sandra was happy with it, I’m happy with it, and I hope you, the reader, perceive it as the right opening to a German book all about deliberate silences.