Lost in Translation: on fostering a conversation between languages

What does multilingualism mean for a city’s literary culture? From her base in Berlin, Kylie Maslen explores the tension for European readers, who want to participate in global literary conversations but don't want to give up their mother tongue – and the challenges for European writers attempting to reach English-language audiences.

Berlin Neukölln Weserstraße. Image by Andreas Lehner (CC BY 2.0)

Book Shop in Berlin. Image by svenwerk (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Berlin is a city of three-and-a-half million people from 180 countries. But in a multicultural city where more than two million residents speak at least two languages, there is a pervasiveness to English here. Despite the highest non-German speaking languages in Berlin being Turkish, Russian and Polish, over 86% of Germans speak English, so it often acts as a bridge between German and other non-native languages. In everyday conversation in Berlin, as soon as you pause or seem unsure, the first question you’ll be asked is, ‘Would English be better?’

What does multilingualism mean for a city’s literary culture? In many of the largest Anglospheric cultural centres – New York, London, Melbourne or Edinburgh – literary scenes are resolutely monolingual by default. But in cities like Berlin, where many writers can move effortlessly between languages, deciding whether to write or speak in a particular tongue is a little more fraught. 

In June, at the Berlin launch of the American writer Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief (released earlier this year in German as Jeder Tag gehört dem Dieb), linguistic back-and-forth was the normThe launch took the form of a discussion including both the author and his German translator, Christine Richter-Nillson. While the bulk of the interview was conducted in English, the event also featured discussion with Richter-Nilsson, and lengthy readings in German of the translated novel. Mimicking the flow of everyday conversations on the streets of Berlin, the discussion oscillated between German and English.

It remains one of the most interesting things about this increasingly multilingual city: there are no set rules when it comes to switching languages. Often the conversation will turn when one party becomes uncomfortable or uncertain, but it is often the non-native speaker who will return the conversation to German. After an audience member asked for translations of Cole’s answers in English to German, the host offered to ask the questions first in German and then repeat them in English. Cole responded that he would keep his answers short where possible, or would seek Richter-Nilsson’s assistance where necessary. At one stage, however, Cole corrected the German translation of one of his answers, despite not being a German speaker, much to the joy of the audience – of whom native speakers made up the majority.

Teju Cole's work in translation

Finding English-language books in Berlin isn’t hard. Large expat communities mean there are excellent second-hand bookshops catering to lovers of English-language literature, and many German bookshops offer a shelf or two of English-language books – usually blockbusters. Works of fiction from English-language writers with a more literary streak – Teju Cole, say, or Dave Eggers, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt or Miranda July – appear at almost every bookshop, in both English and German.

In a city where history is unavoidable, there are, of course, historical and political reasons for the broad availability of books in English. Shirley Wray, of the Berlin bookshop Marga Schoeller Bücherstube, explained in a 2008 interview with Expatica why their store boasts a strong English-language section. ‘During [the] first half of the century, Marga Schoeller refused to sell Nazi literature,’ she said. ‘When the end of the war came, she got the licence to start selling English books from the Allies. That is when our tradition of selling English books started.’ This also perhaps explains the prevalence of authors such as Cole, whose titles often play on the quirks and frustrations of modern society.

Writing in 2012 for the New York Review of Books, translation expert Tim Parks explained that the increased fluency of English by European citizens has resulted in expanded sales of English-language novels. More curiously, a sense of familiarity with Anglospheric culture has also seen ‘a much more marked increase in sales of literature written in English but read in translation in the local language.’ In Germany’s neighbouring Netherlands, the Dutch Foundation for Literature (Nederlands letterenfonds) have released figures showing a marked increase in translated work: ‘In 1946 only 5% of Holland’s book production was made up of translations; by 2005 it had reached 35% and in the area of prose fiction it had reached 71%. Of those translations, 75% now come from English.’

Consuming English-language works in translation is a double-edged sword. Some – including Parks – argue that the prevalence of English-language literature is contributing to a globalised monoculture. But by consuming this culture in their native tongue, at least readers are ensuring their local language remains strong. The broader issue is that while more and more English-language books are available in European translation, the reverse doesn’t hold true: beyond Haruki Murakami, Karl Ove Knausgaard or Jo Nesbø, translated works are still grossly underrepresented in English-language stores.

The publishing industry is, at least, beginning to respond to this. The Man Booker recently announced broad changes to their International Prize (MBI), simplifying their criteria to become a prize given to ‘a book written in a foreign language and translated into English’. The prize money is to be shared equally between the author and the translator of the work. Explaining the need for the rule changes to the MBI, the announcement acknowledged that the issues come from both sides of the English language divide:

‘What the MBI Prize has highlighted is the paucity of foreign books available in the English speaking nations – known as “the 3% problem” because only 3% of the titles published each year in the UK and America are translations from a foreign tongue (of which fiction accounts for just 1%). Both sides miss out: readers are not getting the chance to discover great writers and those writers are not getting the readership they deserve.’

Readux Books publishes English-language translations of work from German and Swedish

At the other end of the scale is publishing house Readux – a small press working to translate work by contemporary German authors into English. Their website provides this mission statement:

‘German writers are heavily influenced by English-language literature, and their daily interactions and media consumption often mix English and German seamlessly. But this is largely a one-way exchange. Translation into English, particularly of contemporary authors, is notoriously lacking–and when it does happen, then often years after the original publication.’

Residents of Berlin – both natives and newcomers – are constantly seeking new ways to find cross-cultural common ground, and the broad acceptance of English-language work by German readers certainly makes this easier. At Cole’s book launch, for example, the packed room and engaged audience served to demonstrate that this kind of cultural exchange is not only possible, but truly sought after. Still, even as it appears as though linguistic barriers are collapsing in European literary capitals, the flow of culture seems to move predominantly in one direction. Let’s hope that changes to the Man Booker International Prize, and publishing initiatives like Readux, can help to celebrate non-English language literature before the ever-growing monoculture of the West brings it to extinction. After all, multilingual and multicultural cities such as Berlin want to see a conversation between languages – not just a monologue.

Portrait of Kylie Maslen

Kylie Maslen is a writer and events producer from Adelaide, now based in Melbourne. Her writing is focussed on sense of place and feminism, covering topics including literary criticism, food writing and her love of Australian Rules football. In her spare time she writes about what she’s been reading and what she’s been eating at book-plate.com