15 May 2013

Cut.ting Edge Event: a jewel of a meritocracy, or of a mediocracy? Part 1.

     Cut.ting Edge – Austrian, German and Swiss writing in translation – was published online last Saturday night, and before you read any half-baked reviews of it, you should read the magazine itself. Five Dials, another magazine for new translations from the German speaking world was released in January. Alongside the work of thirteen other translators, an essay and two poems of mine are published in Cut.ting Edge; the work in Five Dials is, on the face of it, excellence – and much more important, an enjoyable read. So the only political correct and marketing correct answer to my rhetorical opener would be: of course these magazines should be seen as jewels of a meritocracy. A real no-brainer. Oder?
     Cut.ting Edge is a single issue (Nr. 14) of the Mad Hat Annual. It's been guest edited by Lucy Renner Jones, working  alongside Jenny Piening as co-guest editor, and Helen Rutley as editorial assistant. The event to celebrate the magazine's release took place Saturday last in a big converted bus driver's canteen in Berlin's Wedding district. You come in across what was presumably the old bus car-park, a wide, badly-lit space, to enter round the corner into the attractively lit and roomy location. I get there late at about half-nine, and a well-impressively sized audience of about seventy are chatting around tables, during the first break in the programme. You don't get this in Hamburg, where the large alternative public spaces are grungy, over-pierced and chock-full of graffiti, inhabited by people who must think the revolution's chances are aided by neither greeting nor smiling at strangers. I scan round the room for the safety of the pack, and find haven in the sight of two Brits who I met for the first time last summer, K. and C. Woman K. has already had her translation read by this stage – which I sadly missed, due to committing to the end of my daughter's birthday party before catching the Berlin train – and has valid questions, both about the way Robert (Eliot) read her work to start the evening, and about the validity of reading prose aloud in general. Letting hearsay judge the quality of the first reading, I can say that Robert's reading of Jenny (Piening's) translation was superb, light-fingered, deft, giving the audience lots of much needed laughs. Jenny's managed to relocate a text that she says has a strongly Schwabian feel to it over to a Little England, Estuary English milieu, where step-dad Pornstar still lashes out at our teenage protagonist, but where we as audience can already gladly look forward to Pornstar's comeuppance. Yeah! The relocation fits, cause in both the original and the translated location you know you're stuck, car-less, a full ninety slow-train minutes away from any form of economic or cultural centre, a train ride you can enjoy in the company of other foul-mouthed kids with pornstar step-dads.
     The talk in the break turns to the education of the Swedes – C. taught English Lit. over the last few years at a Swedish university, while K.'s mum commutes regularly to Sweden for her adult education work. (Is there an un-pompous method of giving concise, biographical facts about the middle-classes? Just don't give them? c.f. concise facts about the hedonistic or under-classes: 'Brendan spent years unsuccessfully trying to teach Henry how to skin up; while Sabine commutes regularly to her doctor in Neu Wiedentahl to get her repeat documentation for her incapacity pension.' Racey stuff.) C. claims there's more than enough Swedes on Masters degree courses who just haven't got it, and criticises a Swedish university system where you've got limitless opportunities to retake an exam until you pass it. This chimes with K.'s own direct experience – & with her mother's – of Swedish students, leading the pair of them to damn Sweden for being a mediocracy, at least in terms of education. While they talk, my fumbling mind starts to build the other side of this dialectic, with education in the UK – and, by knock on effect, the whole UK society – personified into the chivalrous Knight of Meritocracy. Only I don't believe that twaddle for a second. Yes, some people in Britain are successful in education as a result of achievement sustained over many years, and C. and K. appear on the surface as examples of this par excellence, both with Oxbridge degrees, one PhDeed in German lit. & one studying for a PhD. Yet to lay emphasis on these tiny threads in the fabric of the truth looks like deliberate misrepresentation: there is no level playing field which C., K., myself & other Brits our age played against each other on, to win advancement; the Swedes have done the work that the UK has shunned in levelling their field – theirs still bumpy but no longer the joke, steep uphill UK slog, reminiscent of legendary amateur pitches in Scotland. This better pitch means the mediocre in Sweden get to stay in the game for longer.
     Weary of my dehydrated sociological metaphor-making, I'm glad to get to the bar, again, during the second break. I've just heard Martin Clausen reading, which, probably due to the white-hot brilliance of both presentation & translation itself I've managed to blank out, entirely: some kind of coping-with-greatness mechanism, I guess. Though looking back in the (very useful typed) programme at the German title of the work which Martin read I see: ich hatte an diesem Abend auf eine dritte Person Lust; and wonder why Lucy (Renner Jones) and Karen Witthun didn't choose to translate the three-way sex scene this title hints at, especially with a view to Saturday's event. I'd say you can't feed your tipsy, high-stamina audience enough populist & smutty tit-bits, in a reading that ended up stretching over three hours.
     Marc Vincenz's mind was purified of every populist & sullying thought as he ascended to the lecture podium. Or so his stage presence seemed to communicate. Grasping that podium masterfully with bear-like forearms in best Blair-Cameron ''Look.'' style, he proceeded to enlighten us that the Swiss poetess he – and only he – had chosen to translate was perhaps the most significant & deep Swiss poet, ehhm, ever?, and that he had had, and still has?, ''long conversations'' with the surviving Swiss poetess's spouse, in New York, no doubt, into the night, no doubt. Fuck me, New York, eh?!, wouldn't be surprised if fucking Foucault made a guest appearance in such conversations; can only tell you such arty stuff isn't going on where I live, Neugraben, with us it's a quick episode of Hamish MacBeth and then off to bed. It was as if Marc, through the connection to the surviving spouse, was already laying down the gauntlet of his being the 'definitive' translation of, God, what was she called?; pig ignorant I must be for never having heard of the woman before. Burkhardt. Erika Burkhardt. Michael Buselmeier, author of Dante deutsch a poetry volume that all the critics were gushing about last autumn, wrote in the afterword of that book a defence of pre-avant-garde poetics: he thinks one main task of poems is to remind us of concrete things, and his poems succeed in doing that. Marc's translated poems reminded me most of all – and this only through the accident of his poetess sharing a surname with our old neighbours – of the Burkhardts, Neugraben's most famous husband & wife dentist team. And they remind me in turn of other Neugrabeners, & parties we used to feel obliged to go. Table football and admiring that safari-lodge style décor. Welcome to suburban hell, and thank Dante that he's still kicking strong in the 21st century to lead us up out again.
      Marc's Erika Burkhardt was dying in an unidentified place, and writing verse epistles to her husband, living, if I got that right, in the same building. Marc also read his translations of some of the husband's replies. Without checking in the magazine again, I can only remember I thought 'that line sounds like Rilke'; I have to confess, I was taken up almost entirely with Marc's presentation style. Was this a breathtakingly clever imitation of the archetype 'I-am-an-important-poet', rehearsed into the minutiae in order to wrong foot the audience into believing that what they were hearing was indeed momentous? Or was it simply the demeanour of a translator, over-sure of his historical role in the world reception of this Helvetian demi-god? Time shall judge. Listening to the death poems made me vow to say or write nothing profound on my own death bed, but to stick instead to commonplaces: ''Any chance of another cup of tea?'', ''Try your best to make sure the kids are all right, especially Maud'',''I'm just going for one last pee.'' And I'll already challenge the Young Minimalists among you out there, to do a reading of that true triteness, translated into The Doric.
     It was in the break after Marc's reading, and after Robert's second reading, when things started to get a bit peculiar. It's impossible, actually, but I can't rid myself of the nagging suspicion that an agent provocateur, fanatically loyal to the original surrealist spirit of Mad Hatter's Review – the magazine inside which Cut.ting Edge is guest issue-ing, if you will – may have slyly dissolved some trips into the Merlot. The readings up til that point had been pleasant and also rather straight. I go to the bar again, and there, propping it up from the other side – standing next to a barman manically speaking beautiful sounding French – is a man who looks the spitting image of the Marc I've just seen on the stage, who greets me with a drunken insult. My intercultural skills go down the toilet, I should have thought fast, heard the East Coast American accent in his voice, remembered that an insult exchange is their efficient way of resolving passing friction with strangers, and come out quick with a ''not bad, tiny cock!'' type drunken insult in reply. And then I'd have no doubt got on swimmingly with this doppelgänger barman. But I'm not so fleet, the exchange peters out. The presence of this unknowable purveyor of drinks has put the willies up me.
     Distracted in this way, I can only recall snapshots of the remainder of the evening. What strikes me most are the media & not the messages of the readings: I mean how people read. Rachel McNicholl took the stage & positioned herself squarely behind the podium, academia style, serious – to read her own seriously-good translation. Mehdi (Nebbou) sat down to read the evening's closer in comfy armchair, bedtime story style. His voice is a delight, tinkling, round; and does he fully realise that the comedy Frenchman style – complete with non-standard intonation – with which he reads English is a definite asset, & should, if anything, be played up even further?
      So we've come to the end of the evening, and not finally solved the question of whether Cut.ting Edge is a microcosm of a meritocracy or of a mediocracy, or even whether the former is indeed preferable. Nor have I yet managed to review all the translators & readers & authors, who made the magazine & Saturday's event happen, a disservice to these individuals, that I'll remedy in Part 2 of this review (& Part 3, & 4 ….) . Already I'm trying to imagine the people who have risen, on their merits, right to the top of the game of translating from German into English – Michael Hofmann, Anthea Bell, that type – guest-editing a magazine in the way Lucy and Jenny have done, tolerating & even encouraging that amount of novelty & pluralism. And I can not. The disadvantage of conceiving literary translation or society as a meritocracy is that you'll be focussing on the work and agendas of those generally agreed to be the most meritorious, you'll be focussing on centres. And in so doing, you'll be missing a lot of the wild dialogue on the edges. Cut.ting edge lets you listen in on some of that dialogue.