Talking with German Author Christopher Kloeble about the Perils of Poetry Translation, World War I Jokes, and the Festival Neue Literatur

Photo via Festival Neue Literatur

The seventh annual Festival Neue Literatur, the first (and the only) literary festival in the United States to focus on German-language literature, kicked off last night with an opening reception at the Goethe-Institut New York. The festival features writers from across several German-speaking countries—Austria, Germany, Switzerland—as well as the US. (Check out the manageable and well-curated event schedule, which starts the evening of Friday, February 26 and ends the evening of Sunday, February 28, here.) This year features, in addition to American writers Jenny Offill and James Hannaham, a roster of exciting German-language authors. We spoke to Bavarian-born writer Christopher Kloeble—whose novel of closely held family secrets, Almost Everything Very Fast, came out this month from Graywolf—about the festival, writing, translation, and living across the world.

This year the Festival Neue Literatur is celebrating humor in German-language writing. What are the funniest books you’ve read in German recently? What do they have in common?
Recently, I saw a theatre adaption of All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa in Berlin, which, just like her novel of the same name, struck me as very funny. I loved the dry humor. As for other “funny” books, they usually don’t have much in common. I believe that there are as many kinds of humor as there are languages. That’s why people so often disagree on what is funny. It’s much easier to find—or, for that matter, write—something that everybody believes is sad or tragic.
Your book has been praised for its folkloric and often humorous threads, which animate a fairly dark story. Did you think much about humor as you were writing Almost Everything Very Fast?
Not at all. I’m certain it wouldn’t have worked. Writing humor is like breathing or walking. Once you start thinking about it, it becomes a very difficult task. To be honest, most of the time I don’t even know why something is considered funny. There’s that line in the novel about how remote Segendorf, the village where the book is set, is: “The residents first heard about World War I only after it had been lost.” In readings people always laugh when they hear it. But I didn’t think of it as a joke when I wrote it. All that mattered to me was that there is a tension, a stark contrast between what the story is about and how it’s being told. It’s common enough to hear a sad story being told in a sad way. But a funny story that is being told in a sad way strikes me as much more interesting.
How involved were you with the English translation of your book?
I wanted to leave the translator as much freedom as possible. That said, the English translation was the only translation I was able to read. So I did have a close look at it. In particular, I helped with a few poems in the book which are supposed to be badly written. It wasn’t easy finding English counterparts for some of the rhymes. I already had trouble in the original writing the poems in a way that would make clear that they were deliberately terrible. So I dug out a diary from my early teenage years and stole some of the poetry I’d written at the time. That worked really well! But generally, I’m extremely happy with Aaron Kerner’s translation.
Why is translation important?
What could be more important than translation? We live in a constant state of translation, even if we speak the same language. Not one person understands another person completely. But we have to keep the conversation going—most other options are far worse and will make people commit terrible acts. Translation lets us glimpse what goes on in other worlds, it helps with creating empathy. Without it, we’re lost.
You split your time between Delhi and Berlin. What do you get out of living in two very distant places? How are they similar? How different?
I could write a whole book about that. My wife, Saskya Jain, grew up in Delhi, and she’s also a writer. For her it’s as important to spend time in India as it is for me to be in Germany. The beautiful side effect of living here and there is that I not only learn a lot about the subcontinent but even more about Germany. Sometimes it’s better to be farther away from something in order to see it more clearly. As for your last question: Both places are basically different in every way I can think of. Any yet, with every day that I live in India, and the closer I look, it appears to me that, in the end, they’re so surprisingly similar.

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