A little over a year ago, I was listening to That Other Word, a podcast of the Center for the Art of Translation. Daniel Medin had interviewed Geraldine Chognard, who manages the Parisian bookstore Le Comptoir de Mots. Geraldine spoke about her enthusiasm and her success in hand-selling Reinhard Jirgl, a German author known for an unconventional, challenging style of writing.
There are no English translations of his work. I sent an email to Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books asking if an agent had discussed Jirgl’s works with him. (Naveen just won the Goethe Medal for his efforts in bringing German writing into English). He didn’t recall anyone offering Jirgl.
I did some searching on the internet, ran German reviews of Jirgl’s works through “translate this page” and Google Translate. Everything sounded interesting.
In January, Rick Simonson of The Elliott Bay Book Company and I were in Kolkata to teach a class at the Seagull School of Publishing. We observed an afternoon session with Berlin-based translator Katy Derbyshire and authors Inka Parei and Dorothee Elmiger.
After their class, I asked Katy if she was aware of Jirgl. She was, and suggested that his books would be difficult to translate. Inka overheard our conversation and asked me whom we were discussing. When I told her, she said very slowly “I love Reinhard Jirgl,” and spent the next few minutes talking about his works and writing style.
Naveen, on the other side of the office, overheard our conversation and asked me for Jirgl’s German publisher; it is Carl Hanser Verlag. Naveen said that he knew them well, that they were like family.
I’ve only been involved in two acquisitions and both made me very nervous. Over the next few months, I kept asking, prodding Naveen. He told me these things work in their own time. I needed to be patient. Everything was all right. It would happen.
In August, Naveen wrote to tell me that Seagull Books would be publishing all six of Jirgl’s works! In September, Jirgl’s book Nichts von euch auf Erden (Deserted Earth) was announced as one of the six finalists for the German Book Prize. In October, Naveen told me that Iain Gailbraith would be the translator of the books.
The six books are:
Abschied von den Feinden
Die antlantische Mauer
Nichts von euch auf Erden
Here’s a sample translation of Deserted Earth that was submitted to the German Book Prize:
His trepidations persisted, however – doubts born of the fear of confronting his beloved once again. (The woman had long been part of his innermost self; he had communed with her, lending her imaginary person feelings and words that were wholly his own, forging a closeness that had never truly existed. A being had emergedfrom this who possessed all the features of The One, but who was solely the repository of his own desires. Sometimes a voice would ask him: Can I help it if you love me – and he would feel abashed. Meeting her again for real meant his mental projection of her would be exposed to the ordeal of seeing his desires and imaginings tested by the woman in the flesh – who would be a stranger to him. He dreaded his renewed encounter with her, and yet there was nothing he longed for more.) –
This time, for the homecoming multitudes returning from Mars to Earth, there was no reception on the esplanade in Central Europe’s capital, no crowd clad in white, eagerly awaiting their arrival. It was as if the homecomers were sneaking into the city like an army of thieves. Nobody was on the esplanade. Instead of finely pleated, white summer robes: snow. Billions of gleaming crystals, miniscule starlets fallen from skyhigh blue, atomized the sunlight –. Not a footprint here, not a person or beast, nobody,nothing at all – the smoothly draped whiteness was untouched, beautiful. Everything sounded brighter, voices carried – a bracing chill gave freshness to the air. Gravity and atmospheric pressure bore down with an iron heft; his heart beat in his throat, flailing against the invisible dead-weight. The dense air around his mouth resisted his breathing, and although its freshness brushed his lips with the uncanny delicacy and keenness of ice-needles, it had the compact solidity of an ice-ball, and was practically impossible to inhale. He felt he was drowning in a freezing ocean of air, yet his straining lungs craved its icy rivulets, sucking them in like largesse. – By and by, able to breathe freely at last, he became re-acclimatized to the pleasantly fresh, frosty air that swirled around him wherever he went. Soon he was walking upright, his body tensed against gravity, his back straight, setting one foot before the other. Day by day he grew used to the atmosferic pressure, and to the bliss of easily breathing the snowy air of the Earth.
He had been allocated a flat in a remote part of town, and it was here that he went about his work on Earth. It had once been his task to assign contingents of prisoners to work camps on the moon; his job today was that of selecting and collecting books, morfological tomes whose content was unknown to him. The work suited him, and he liked the mellow glow of the books in the dark. He did not regret his previous activities. His experience was that people could only be improved by opening their skulls and ripping out their putrid brains. For it is written: If it offends thee, gouge it out. The sooner, the better. Now that he was no longer obliged to have contact with them, the people he did meet seemed as changeable as the weather. Like the weather, people showed peculiarities that were alien to him and functioned according to their own rules. Their intercourse was mainly distrustful and pedantic. The people had split into warring factions, and the continents were partitioned into parcels of officially prescribed benignity. As if aspiring to jurisprudence they couched their speech in legalese and adopted the piqued manner of cantankerous aunts or other such moral guardians. There was a universal tendency to jaundiced faultfinding, all sedulously prosecuted with a will to the be(a)st for everyone. No morsel of speech was too sickly-sugared to take into their mouths, and for dollops of fatty grease shot through with slivers of metal they dutifully lacerated their tongues and gums; in every word was the sweetly-fetid tang of blood. Conversations quickly congealed to a bilgy viscosity that resembled rank porridge. People swallowed down most of their rage, and affecting equanimity furtively brooded on their Right-to-One-Murder as meanly as some dog chewing a bone. Cancer and heart-attack rates on New Earth had soared in this era of global embrace and The Great Peace….. And as yesterday, so today, with the same results: hatred greed resentment deviousness spiteful cunning, but more especially stupidity laziness indifference. Occasionally there was passion, love – but even they were never unalloyed with wile. Sociability and amusement: all alien to him, vacuous trivialities. He lacked the human impulse to flock together; the C-Gene Modification had been unable to inoculate him: His will to solitude had remained resistant. He had neither the will nor the facility to mingle with all these people, and thus he shunned human society, passing his days alone with his books, monuments by people who lived on in their works. The creations of humankind are often more human than their creators, a person’s work more valuable than the person. He arranged for several collections of morfological books to be transported by shuttle to the Earth’s moon, there to be housed on the near side of the Moon in abandoned depots, the last people having finally left. There, with a view to Earth, they would be safe. Only the morfological books were to survive.
– – - translated from the German by Iain Galbraith