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Books go global

February 25, 2010

Contemporary German literature is evolving and translations are becoming more attractive to foreign audiences, says the Goethe Institut. The organization sponsors translations to promote the German language abroad.

A young woman reading a book
German literature has become more accessible over the past several decadesImage: picture-alliance/ KPA

Not every writer manages to have a work translated into 41 languages, but Daniel Kehlmann - author of "Measuring the World" - is a unique case. He is exemplary of a trend that Sabine Erlenwein from the Goethe Institut has been observing in the recent years. She believes that contemporary German literature has aroused a lot of curiosity.

German literature is gaining international popularity again, thanks in part to the German Book Prize, established in 2005. A new generation of writers has emerged, such as 31-year-old Sasa Stanisic, who published an autobiographically-influenced debut novel about a refugee from the Bosnian War. Writers like him are now selling rights to their books in dozens of countries.

According to Sabine Erlenwein, who is responsible for promoting German literature and translations, this international success is also due to the fact that the storytelling style of German authors has changed a lot since the 1980s and is now less "experimental."

Daniel Kehlmann
Daniel Kehlmann is internationally successfulImage: dpa

She noted writers whose works deal with German reunification - Uwe Tellkamp, Marcel Beyer, Julia Franck - as contemporary German authors who have been particularly successful abroad.

Room for improvement

German literature has been especially popular in central and eastern Europe, but less so in English-speaking countries. Through its semi-annual magazine titled "New Books in German" and an online portal called "Litrix," the Goethe Institut keeps the Anglophone world updated on recent events in the realm of German literature, but this has not met with much interest.

Instead, at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, Arabic and Chinese literature has been highlighted in the past few years, said Andreas Schmol from the Goethe Institut. "Also English, because that's a difficult market, and Spanish, because it's a large and important language area," he added.

The Goethe Institut's department for translations supports 250 to 300 translations per year. According to Erlenwein, between 550,000 and 600,000 euros ($745,000 to $813,00)of funding is available for these translations, which she finds to be "a substantial sum, but still never enough."

"We could happily spend 200,000 euros more in this area, especially when we consider how many proposals we receive," said Erlenwein.

Optimized funding process

Julia Franck
Julia Franck won the German Book Prize in 2007Image: AP

Foreign publication companies that request support and have already purchased the rights to a German book turn to the Goethe Institut, which reviews their applications and informs them how to proceed. A jury panel decides whether the book in question is worth the investment. If yes, up to 80 percent of the translation costs can be covered by the Goethe Institut.

Until recently, this was a rather drawn-out process, labeled by many as bureaucratic and inefficient. However, according to Erlenwein, the jury panel has now solved this problem by appointing regional experts with good knowledge of their respective book markets, in order to gain a better understanding of prices and local publication companies."

"It can be helpful when someone can say, 'Yes, the sum they demand is totally unrealistic - something is not correct there. They want to finance the printing of the book with this, not just the translation. In reality, a fee of X euros per page applies here,'" explained Erlenwein.

"Those are decisive pointers that not only accelerate the process, but make it more professional."

Author: Knut Cordsen (ew)
Editor: Kate Bowen