On the Improbability of Butterflies

I don’t know whether the similarities between Hanni Münzer’s Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt and Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love (Bloomsbury, 2015) would have struck me so clearly if I hadn’t read them one after the other.

Both feature a love story tangled up in a whodunnit, are told from a range of characters’ viewpoints and relate both to the nature of love and to the dark secrets of World War II and the Holocaust. Both also rely heavily on coincidence and feature difficult mother-daughter relationships.

The title Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt translates as “While There Are Butterflies” and it was published by Eisele Verlag in 2017. I translated a couple of sample chapters for the publisher and liked it enough to want to read the rest.

The blurb (my translation):

After Penelope’s life was struck by disaster, she has largely withdrawn from the world. She dares not believe in the possibility that happiness or love could return to her life. But then she meets the octogenarian Trudi Siebenbürgen – a fascinating woman with a mysterious past. Her new neighbour Jason also has a unique role to play in shaping Penelope’s new path. And slowly, Penelope learns that the world is full of wonder for those who will see it.

Now, from that, the cover and what I’d read and translated already, I wasn’t expecting to suddenly find myself reading a mini police procedural in the middle of this book as Penelope and Jason find themselves potential witnesses in a case of kidnapping and murder! I thought I knew where the book was going, and it wasn’t there…

Hanni Münzer - Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt

Judging a book by its cover – does this look like a crime/romance mash-up to you?

Penelope is a primary school teacher who has been trying to slip through life unnoticed and unseen since the tragedy that broke up her family and her marriage. She has a strained relationship with her mother and lives alone with her cat. Then she forms an unlikely friendship with her elderly neighbour Trudi, who has her own secrets and tumultuous past, and enters into a whirlwind relationship with the aforementioned Jason, who moves in upstairs and churns up her quiet existence. All kinds of strands bind Penelope and her family to Trudi and Jason in what Trudi sees as the web of fate. I can’t now find a source for the quote that a novel is allowed one major and one minor coincidence, but Hanni Münzer definitely exceeds her quota!

There is a lot here about the psychology of grief as well as love, and the need to accept and move on from the past. I found these parts moving, mostly in a good way, yet the book as a whole was slightly unbalanced because of the huge range of plot strands. On getting to the end, I discovered that some of the loose ends relate to Hanni Münzer’s Honigtot saga, so although it works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, that is something to be aware of.  Fortunately, I have just managed to find a copy of Honigtot in the local library (one of about only 5 German books that they stock!) so I will see how they come together.

The mystery element of The Improbability of Love is clearer from the outset:

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

When lovelorn Annie McDee stumbles across a dirty painting in a junk shop while looking for a present for an unsuitable man, she has no idea what she has discovered. Soon she finds herself drawn unwillingly into the tumultuous London art world, populated by exiled Russian oligarchs, avaricious Sheikas, desperate auctioneers and unscrupulous dealers, all scheming to get their hands on her painting – a lost eighteenth-century masterpiece called ‘The Improbability of Love’. Delving into the painting’s past, Annie will uncover not just an illustrious list of former owners, but some of the darkest secrets of European history – and in doing so she might just learn to open up to the possibility of falling in love again.

Now here, if I hadn’t had the book highly recommended by our lovely local independent bookseller and seen the glowing reviews from quality newspapers, or known that it had won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and been shortlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, I wouldn’t have got past the Prologue. It seemed to be nothing but a mass of clunky clichés, and snobbish at that. Those lures were just about enough to keep me reading (that and the fact that I had nothing else to read while waiting for Son2 to finish his piano lesson). In the end, that paid off because the book is entertaining enough.

I wasn’t sure that the love story and the lessons in art history always gelled, and I felt that the plot could have benefitted from some trimming to keep it moving. And I could definitely have done without the sections narrated by the painting itself! Towards the end, I was skimming large chunks so as to find out what happened next. (Maybe on a second reading I’d be able to take it all in better.) Here, there is just the one major coincidence, which happens early on, and about which Hannah Rothschild is sufficiently upfront to get away with.

These are both slightly frustrating, rather sprawling novels, but I enjoyed them both and would recommend either to anyone looking for a novel that’s easy to read yet with a bit of depth.

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On Translating Simone Buchholz’s Blue Night

Blue Night Proof cover.indd

There’s much excitement at the moment because my translation of Simone Buchholz‘s wonderful German noir Krimi Blue Night (Blaue Nacht) is coming out in paperback at the end of March, published by the equally wonderful Orenda Books. It’s already available as an e-book and there are plenty of reviews available via the blog tour, so if you want to know more about it, there are lots of things to look at (and isn’t that cover pretty?!).

I don’t seem to have written much about the actual business of translating, so perhaps this is a good place to start. Or maybe I should go back a bit further to the bit about finding a project, or a project finding me… Or back to the gender imbalance in translated literature noticed in earnest a few years ago, a realisation that led to Women in Translation Month, the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and various other articles and initiatives. One such project was Lit Hub‘s Women to Translate series.

All these strands came together for this book after I had a meeting with Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books at the London Book Fair in 2016 and we began looking for a project to work on together. Among the books I read and reported on for Orenda was Blaue Nacht, and the German publisher, Suhrkamp, had flagged it up to them as having been included on Katy Derbyshire’s piece 10 German Books by Women We’d Love to See in English, which was exactly the desired effect.

So. Suffice to say that I was hooked. There’s a hard-boiled poetry to Simone’s writing, Riley is an engaging, sardonic, feminist heroine like a 21st-century, female, Hamburg-based Philip Marlowe, and there’s a gripping, fast-paced plot – what’s not to like?

Then, the wheels of international publishing ground on slowly, eventually resulting in a translation contract. Followed immediately by self-doubt. Could I do this? Could I really recreate Riley’s voice in English? One of the things I love so much about Simone’s text is the way every word is precisely placed, carefully chosen, doing its job. Could I really have the nerve to pull off the same trick in another language that works so differently? Would it risk tipping over into a Chandleresque pastiche?

Blue Night has been such fun to work on, and so full of challenges. There are the linguistic difficulties, the cultural differences, the need to convey the sense of Hamburg (a city I’ve never visited, but long to see) and occasional snippets of Austrian and Hamburg dialect. I’ve done my best by the voice and tried to convey the same effects, even if not always by the same means. I’m enormously grateful to friends and colleagues in real life conversation, professional forums and social media for their help, inspiration and flashes of genius, which have found their way into the text, and to everyone who’s read various drafts, especially my long-suffering husband! I’m thrilled that Karen took up my suggestion of including a map so that readers can see how the various streets, cafés and bars etc relate to each other. I’m also grateful to West Camel for his careful and sensitive edits.

Now, having laboured and agonised over every word, and read the whole thing aloud to check for the music of the text, it’s nearly time to release it into the wild and see if English readers share my enthusiasm.

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Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure, by Alex T. Smith

Son2 has been reading more independently lately, particularly Enid Blyton and the Beano, so I haven’t had so many children’s books to write about. We’ve managed to break that streak recently though (variety being the spice of life, and all that). He’s a long-time fan of the Claude series by Alex T. Smith – so much so that he went to school dressed as Claude on last year’s World Book Day – so moving on to the longer chapter book Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure (Hodder Children’s Books, 2017) was a logical step.

Mr Penguin

The publisher’s description “Indiana Jones meets Hercule Poirot … with plenty of slapstick humour, mystery and adventure” is pretty apt, and it’s perfectly pitched to appeal to children of around 8 who find bottom jokes hysterical, while still being fun for grown-ups to read aloud. There’s a cast of entertaining characters, an underground jungle and jewel-thieves to foil before Mr Penguin can finally settle down to a well-deserved fish finger sandwich. Fans of Claude will recognise the characteristic wit and exuberant illustrations. We both enjoyed this very much and will be looking forward to Mr Penguin’s next adventure!

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This Little Art

This Little Art

Like much of the rest of the (literary) translation world, I have been reading and enjoying Kate Briggs’ essay This Little Art, recently published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

It is her obviously, unambiguously and unashamedly personal and subjective thinking on translation and writing, both her own and other people’s. Yet perhaps because of this, it also has a resonance that makes me want to punch the air and say: “Yes! That!” I recognise that feeling, that image, that idea of this thing that we do. I love the fact that she cites How to Train your Dragon alongside Barthes and Derrida. I love her defence of everyone’s right to their own taste in literature.

Imagine: if we were all to fall in love with the same person! Likewise, with literature: some of us will fall in love with some texts and others with others… If we were all to only ever desire the same book, then what would be written would always be the same book, which is not the case.

It is about literary translation, but a lot of the musings are applicable to all kinds of translation, the process by which it is done. “A to and fro, a relay: a venturing of something new on the very close basis of something that already and persistently exists.” We want to get it right, but what does right mean? We have our response to the text, and what makes good English, our own style, which might be very different from the author’s style, languages that might work very differently while needing to say the same thing, yet maybe the point should be to emphasise the differences that make it exciting, or maybe to make it smooth and unjarring…

All this is considered with reference to Robinson Crusoe making a table, the much-criticised translations of Thoman Mann by Helen Lowe-Porter, and Kate Briggs’ own translation of lectures by Roland Barthes, among much else. She takes issue with reviewers who seek out mistakes in a spirit of “gotcha!”, pointing out that a translation also needs to be taken as a whole:

I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves, some recognition of what it might have meant to have handled every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated, to have taken a decision in relation to its every single word (space and punctuation mark), and indeed to have written every single one of its parts […], which might in turn be another way of saying each and every one of its risks.

There are occasional little vicarious thrills when someone I know, or at least have met, gets a mention. There are also little irritations – I’ve been spending way too much time lately obsessing over hyphenation and splitting sentences over lines, and it irks me to see examples of the things I’ve been ruthlessly tracking down on behalf of certain clients.

turing. Agh – ugly!

But now, am I “gotcha-ing”? No, actually, I don’t think so. That’s an issue with the layout rather than the text, but it’s like a wrong note in the middle of a symphony, or “great routine, shame about the wobble”, or the burnt turnip in the middle of an otherwise amazing tasting menu that I still remember more clearly than all the other beautiful courses and flavours! And it’s the fear of making a mistake of that sort (i.e. one that mars the reader’s enjoyment or understanding of the text) that drives my (our?) perfectionism. (I also don’t know if I can entirely forgive the use of a word like unparadigmatizable, but that’s a matter of taste.)

Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she writes – it’s way too personal a book for that.  It’s written in little snippets that make it perfect for dipping in and out of, as well as more sustained reading, and there’s plenty to mull over in between times. This is an interesting, inspiring and entertaining read for anyone interested in translation, or language in general.

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Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk

So last year was weird. Professionally exciting, but politically deeply weird and scary. As a result, my reading tended towards the funny and the familiar. Good for my mental health, but not so interesting to blog about.

As for what 2018 has in store, who knows. It would be nice to get some balance back in the world but I’m not holding my breath. I have two books coming out – more on which later. And hopefully I’ll be able to find space for writing about books again.

One of my Christmas presents was Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (Daunt Books, 2017), which I finished – appropriately enough – just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. This is just the kind of book I like but which seems to be so hard to find – smart, funny, easy to read, with a joy in “language, its sounds and its rhythms. Rhymes and puns and nonsense, ranging from dumb and fun to witty and profound,” and a story to tell.

Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Roooney

Lilian Boxfish is 85 when she sets out on New Year’s Eve in 1984 for a stroll that unexpectedly takes her across the whole of Manhattan and back. Along the way she muses on her life, back from when she was a bright young thing, and the highest paid advertising woman in the USA, and on the changes she has seen in a city she loves. Lilian has traded on her charm and wit all her life, and she continues to do so now in her eighties. A highly successful professional woman at a time when maternity leave was unheard of, she flouts convention, only to struggle when it catches up with her. Lilian may be based in part on the real Margaret Fishback, whose papers Rooney worked on, but her story is entirely fictional.

The book is as much about New York as it is about Fishback/Boxfish, and Rooney has set out to combine the story with her love of flânerie. It must be hard to write about the construction of the World Trade Center post-9/11 without succumbing to dramatic irony, but I think on the whole it’s tackled reasonably successfully, poignant rather than overblown.

Lilian is an appealing guide to her city and her life, over the best part of a century of upheavals, and her quick-witted verses and ads are a real testimony to the real Margaret Fishback – poet, author, advertising woman and proto-feminist, who inspired her.

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And the winner is…

It was a joy to be at the presentation of the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation on Wednesday evening. This was the 20th anniversary of the award, and all those involved spoke about how the landscape of translated books for children has changed in those twenty years. This year’s entries included more languages than ever, and an array of books that have long been classics in their original languages, but only just becoming available for English-speaking children.

Held, as ever, in the splendid Dartmouth House, where I always feel rather as though I’m inside a Christmas cake, the ceremony was a positive, outward-looking event. This comes at a time when politics on either side of the Atlantic have become thoroughly depressing, leaving me in little mind for blogging – where everything would become a rant – and with little headspace for anything but uplifting reading… Funny books, including a lot of Discworld and PG Wodehouse, have become my lifeline.

It seems to me that if there is any hope for us, it must lie in bringing up our children to undo the mess we currently seem to be making of things. And in that, an openness to the world has got to be positive. So children’s books in translation are more important than ever. Bridges, not walls, and all that.

It was also lovely to see the finished copies of the translation special edition of Riveting Reads, the School Library Association journal, edited by Daniel Hahn and Joy Court, and born out of a challenge issued by Kevin Crossley-Holland at this event two years ago.

Anyway, back to the presentation: Gillian Lathey – who first inspired my interest in translating for children back during my MA – admitted that she had always wanted to say: “And the winner is…”

And the winner was Helen Wang, for Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxaun, Walker Books, 2016 (translated from Mandarin Chinese).imag1032.jpg

Fellow judge Wendy Cooling said, it is “a warm, delightful book set in the countryside of China during the Cultural Revolution. Strong, well-drawn relationships, tough enough to survive anything, are at the heart of the story and carry the reader through great hardship”.

I’m delighted for Helen, who spoke of the award as vindicating her decision to get back into translation, and showing that what we do really matters.


Related posts: Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, and other excitements

And the 2015 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation Goes to…

The Ears of the Hippopotamus and other matters: The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation 2013

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Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, and other excitements

So, yesterday, the shortlist for next year’s Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation was announced at an event hosted by the English Speaking Union at Dartmouth House in London’s Mayfair. And as ever, I was mildly surprised by the number of Daimlers and Bentleys that nearly knocked me down on my way there…

The announcement was preceded by a panel discussion chaired by Joy Court (School Library Association) and featuring Gill Evans (Walker Books), Annie Eaton (Penguin Random House) and Sarah Odedina (Pushkin Children’s Books). Although covering a lot of the same ground as many such events – “gatekeepers” getting between children and exciting, international books and making things bland; the difficulties for publishers in finding good books that they can’t read themselves; publishers being “trend-driven” in their acquisitions – there was actually a good deal of positivity and I found it an inspiring occasion.


Joy Court pointed out that children are incredibly open to books from around the world, rather than being scared by difference because, after all, everything is new to them. Gill Evans and Sarah Odedina agreed that they were looking for books with an exciting uniqueness to them, that a very specific sense of place would often help a book do better than just being the latest in a long line of, say, vampire stories but just happening to be by a Spanish author… There was agreement that children generally don’t notice whether or not a book is in translation, but can be inspired and intrigued by a “foreign” setting – food seemed to play a key role in children’s books, and two panelists talked about wanting to try the baked cheese in Heidi. Sarah Odedina of Pushkin Children’s ended the talk on a high note, saying that “now is a great time for publishing translations” because as a society we are so much more open and globally connected, and books need to represent this diversity. Given recent depressing political developments in this country, I’m not sure that I share this optimism, but it’s certainly true that we need more than ever to give our children the chance to see beyond our own little island just now.

The shortlist itself was announced by Wendy Cooling, who chaired the judges, and said:

The entries this year were exciting, satisfying, funny and sometimes disturbing reads. In the 20th year of the Award it was exciting to see a very wide range of languages being translated for young British readers. Judging was not work but a real pleasure.


She remarked that this was the “best year ever”, with more languages represented than ever, and that none of the books was plagued by being “too worthy for their own good”. She also said that all six have something that lives on in your head after you have finished reading – always a good sign.

So, <drum roll> the shortlisted books are:

  • The Flying Classroom, Erich Kästner, trans. Anthea Bell (Pushkin Children’s Books),
  • The Little Black Fish, Samad Behrangi, trans. Azita Rassi (Tiny Owl Publishing),
  • Bronze and Sunflower, Cao Wenxuan, trans. Helen Wang (Walker Books),
  • Oh, Freedom!, Francesco D’Adamo, trans. Sian Williams (Darf Publishers),
  • The Secret of the Blue Glass, Tomiko Inui, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori (Pushkin Children’s Books)
  • Detective Gordon: The First Case, Ulf Nilsson, trans. Julia Marshall (Gecko Press)

(image from http://www.esu.org/stories/news/2016/the-shortlist-for-the-marsh-childrens-literature-in-translation-awards-has-been-announced! for further details, see: http://www.esu.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/13385/Press-Release-1.pdf)

Meanwhile, running alongside the award for the first time, is a children’s book reviewing competition called My Marsh. As well as this, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medal nominations have just been published. These are open to translations for only the second year, but there are 5 on the Carnegie list and 2 on the Greenaway one too. AND… there’s the Book Trust In Other Words initiative aimed at promoting “the translation and UK publication of outstanding children’s literature from around the world.”

So there’s much to be excited about, and much to be looking forward to. Many congratulations to all shortlisted authors, translators and publishers, and here’s to the future of world children’s literature!

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