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The Language Barrier

DW staff (ncy)August 11, 2007

Thanks to Klaus Baumgart, Cornelia Funke and a handful of other writers, kids read German books worldwide. They've achieved what few of their colleagues ever will: broken into the English-language book market.

An animated film scene in which a little girl approaches a star in her room
"Laura's Star" was a successful book before it was made into a movieImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

In Klaus Baumgart's picture book "Laura's Star," the main character Laura learns that friends are always there even when you don't see them. The book has captivated children around the globe and been made into a movie. The book's publisher, Frankfurt's Baumhaus-Verlag, says it has sold 1.5 million copies, more than half a million in Britain and the US alone.

"It's actually rather rare that a German license sells so well in the English language," said Dawn Lacy, who's responsible for the foreign rights to the Baumhaus-Verlag's books.

One of the reasons it's so seldom is that the English-language book market is especially difficult to break into. Since so many authors write in English there's little impetus for British or American publishers to look beyond their own countries.

"Unfortunately it's still the case that most English and American publishers don't have any German-speaking editors," Renate Reichstein of the Oetinger publishing house said. Their approach to the language barrier was: "We can't do it so we don't need it," she added.

Success story

Cornelia Funke poses with a copy of "Inkheart"
Cornelia Funke has published more than 40 booksImage: dpa

But success transcended borders years ago for Cornelia Funke, the author of the "Inkheart" and "Dragon Rider" children's books. Equipped with a translation of one of her manuscripts done by a cousin in England, she managed to get her foot in the door, according to Reichstein. Her books have been bestsellers well beyond the German-language book market.

Hollywood has picked up "Inkheart" and made a film which will be released in 2008.

Though Funke's success in the Anglo-American book market has been one of a few exceptions, it has had positive knock-on effects for writers back home in Germany. Publishers outside of Germany have recognized that German authors also know how to spin gripping tales that don't "wag a pedagogical finger" or come across as "typically German, but who just want to awaken a passion to read," said Eva Kutter of Fischer Schatzinsel publishers.

Demand grows

Around twice as many licenses for German-language children and teen literature were sold to foreign countries in 2006 than in 2001, according to Germany's book trade association. All told, 2,300 foreign licenses were sold for German-language literature for children and teens last year, far more than for adult fiction. The increase, however, also reflected the fact that German publishers have been granting more licenses generally.

And those licenses haven't only gone to English-speaking countries. Asian publishers were especially eager to print German children's and teen literature.

Eastern Europe is also growing in importance, Reichstein said: "This market has been exciting since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the associated revival of regional languages that are now rediscovering their own identity and don't have enough authors. In this transitional phase they buy up a lot and have it translated."

Publishers agree that there's no recipe for success. But one formula has triumphed over and over again: strong characters in stories that are told with affection and can be understood the world over -- like the tale of Laura learning about friendship.

A scene from the set of "Inkheart," with Brendan Fraser
An "Inkheart" movie, with actor Brendan Fraser, is set to hit screens in April 2008Image: picture-alliance/ dpa