EIBF 2013: LOYAL TO THE SPIRIT OF TRANSGRESSION – Patricio Pron and Eugen Ruge

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 10th – 26th August 2013 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh. 

by Rebecca DeWald

The pairing of these two writers in one event is unusual: one, a confident East German novelist in his late 50s, in simple jeans and long-sleeve t-shirt with shortly shaved hair, has attracted a number of listeners eagerly waving their (often German) copies of In Times of Fading Light, which has already won the renowned German literature prizes Alfred-Döblin-Preis (2009), Aspekte-Literaturpreis and Deutscher Buchpreis (both 2011); the other, 20 years younger, in trendy geek glasses and Converse trainers, a lesser known Argentine short-story writer, journalist and blogger, who is presenting his first novel and begins by “begging” the audience “pardon” for not speaking English “properly,” since his family’s situation did not enable him to, for his rogue voice due to a cold and for being jet-lagged since he only just returned from Buenos Aires, hoping that “my confusion won’t be transported to you.”

There are some parallels: Both their books, the chair Richard Lea compares, are about the recent past, both are pieced together and both, Patricio Pron adds, are “about something that has completely disappeared but is still present.” Both writers have an interpreter with them, yet they read from the English translations of their novels, both with local accents. This reminds listeners of the “foreignness” of their texts, which the ones without German copies of In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts experience, and maybe even the writers themselves, reading from their fairly autobiographical works in translation and in front of a foreign audience.

Eugen Ruge reads first and explains that he will not explain what passage he is going to read because of the structure of his book which is “like a mosaic consisting of little pieces,” so the reader will always get “the wrong idea of a book because it is always different.” In Times of Fading Light is a family saga which tells the story of a family in the GDR before the fall of the Berlin Wall and is characterised by its jumps in time and space from chapter to chapter. Ruge chose this approach, “first, to make it shorter” and to – he asks his interpreter Donal McLaughlin for help in finding a translation for the word komprimieren – “compress parts of the story which are common knowledge,” like the fall of the Berlin Wall, both at the centre of the narrative, and never mentioned.

Similarly, Patricio Pron’s story has to be told in fragments, because it is part of common knowledge “that people were killed under General Videla” but also because the story would be too painful for Pron to write. My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is partly autobiographical and tells us about a young writer returning to Argentina from Germany – Pron himself spent many years in the country and works as a German lecturer – to say his goodbyes to his dying father, yet Pron does not disclose what about it is factual and what fiction. He explains rather that he fictionalised the novel in the process of writing it more and more, in order to find a form that “wasn’t revolutionary but unconventional. To be loyal to the spirit of transgression.” The novel is “mainly true” to make it more believable – Ruge supports this point and assures that sometimes fiction is closer to reality than fact – but also because he had to avoid the risk of his own family prohibiting the publication of My Father’s Ghost for infringement of privacy rights. Fiction and reality, in a story discussing the issue of the disappeared under General Videla, mingle even further when Pron recounts that his father wrote a letter of approval which can be found on Pron’s blog, adding another hyper-level to the book.

Both novels are given another dimension, another life, in translation, the way they are presented at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The first question from the audience tackles precisely that and asks about the process of translation, whether the writers worked with the translators and how they feel about the English translation. Pron answers first and is full of enthusiasm for working with his translators because “they offer an attentive but very different view about the book from other actors in the process of the book.” He praises Mary Faye Lethem’s translation, gives a bit of background on the young American translator and particularly focuses on the musicality and rhythm her text expresses. Not only is he proud of it, but he considers it an improvement at times: “For me, it was a great experience and I enjoy publicly reading my work in other languages, I sometimes think they sound better.”

Ruge’s response is in stark contrast to Pron’s. He is much more negative about the prospect of translation and begins by stating how he and his English translator managed to “solve some problems by emailing.” The unnamed “English translator” is the renowned Anthea Bell, who brought many key texts of German literature to an English-speaking audience, including W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Stefan Zweig’s novellas and stories and Władysław Szpilman’s memoir The Pianist. Ruge then continues with a statement that made me, and many audience members, judging by their reactions, feel uncomfortable:

“Sometimes I think I sense that it is translated by a woman that might be the difference between both. The rhythm is slightly different, it is sometimes slightly weaker. But I can’t judge it, my English is not good enough, but it is a little bit weaker, a little bit more feminine.”

Lea tries to save Ruge by joking “Maybe the English language is a bit weaker,” but even that cannot undo his statement. What makes me uncomfortable with this is obviously the reproduction of stereotypes about feminine and masculine writing but also the authority Ruge assumes in sentencing a translation though he admits that his “English is not good enough.” Authorial prerogative is mixed with ignorance of the work of a translator, and of Bell’s work in particular, who has translated many male authors before Ruge.

I was ultimately pleased to see this unlikely pair at the same event, if simply to witness the contrast between one writer’s approach to a different rendering of his text, and another’s who, open about the possibilities of a text, appreciates the translators work and shows that there does not have to be a divide between the two types of writers.

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