'There is a wealth of German writing which is known through translation in many countries, but which never finds its way into English translation.'
So began the minutes from a seminar hosted by the Translators Association and the British Centre for Literary Translation in the summer of 1996. Representatives from British and German publishing and cultural organisations met to discuss ‘the general problem of why so few German books are translated into English’ and ‘to attempt to create a framework in which these problems can be addressed, and eventually overcome’. Over a series of meetings that summer, a ‘framework’ was found in the form of New Books in German, which published a promotional leaflet for the autumn 1996 Frankfurt Book Fair, and its inaugural issue the following spring.
The meetings concluded that ‘more professional reports on new German books should be commissioned’, and that reviews need to appear promptly. And so NBG was born – a project to produce high-quality readers’ reports and reviews of new German-language books, ideally to coincide with the books’ publication, and to mediate between the German-language and English-language publishing worlds. At the first seminar, it was recommended that ‘translators should be prepared to assume a higher profile in creating interest in their translations’ – precisely what has happened in the intervening twenty years, as Katy Derbyshire discusses in her article. Just as the career of the translator has developed over those years, so New Books in German has gone from strength to strength under the editorship of Rosemary Smith, Astrid Kurth, Sally-Ann Spencer, Rebecca K. Morrison, myself and Jen Calleja. The success of the project can be attributed entirely to the support from and hard work by the huge amount of people involved, all converging in the publication of each issue. NBG is the result of great and enduring international cooperation, and it is fitting that it came to life through discussions between individuals with a common purpose. Here we share some memories from those present at NBG’s beginnings and since.
Literary Agent Tanja Howarth, who took part in that first seminar and is still a core member of the NBG team, recalls NBG’s ‘birth’:
On 18 June 1996 a meeting was organised at the Goethe-Institut London to explore the promotion of translations of German-language books in the UK. Discussions centred on the idea of developing a ‘German Book News’ which would involve Austria, Germany and Switzerland, consisting of a steering group setting up the framework for the project and an editorial committee being responsible for the content and design. Those present at the meeting were Gordon Fielden, Translators Association; Terry Hale, British Centre for Literary Translation; Rosemary Smith, Oxdowne Translations; Ulla Krauss-Nussbaumer, Austrian Foreign Ministry; Edgar Gansen, German Embassy; Helga Wilderotter-Ikonomon, Goethe-Institut; Regine Friederici, Goethe-Institut; Rene Schaetti, Swiss Embassy; Emil Brix, Austrian Embassy; and John Calder, Publisher. Twenty years later, NBG would like to thank you all for your participation and innovative ideas.
A further meeting took place on 23 July 1996 at the Translators Association when the title New Books in German with the subtitle ‘Austria, Germany and Switzerland’ was adopted and a prospectus to promote this initiative was produced with further input by Peter Straus of Macmillan and Meirion Todd of Hatchards. Thanks to Rosemary Smith with Rivers Scott’s impeccable skills as a literary editor, the first edition of New Books in German was published in spring 1997. Sadly, Rosemary Smith and Rivers Scott are no longer with us, but I would like to remember them as ‘the Birthmother’ and ‘the Godfather’ of NBG, with me perhaps being ‘the Midwife’ in the background.
Publisher and writer John Calder places NBG’s anniversary in context:
The twentieth anniversary of New Books in German is a good occasion to celebrate German culture and literature in the post-war period with its emphasis on democracy and international knowledge. Except for a few scholars and literary specialists, literature has tended to remain within its own language barriers. This changed with the coming of literary festivals, when writers and academics met each other, exchanged their interests and knowledge, and in particular with the Frankfurt Book Fair, created by the new democratic post-Hitler government to re-establish Germany and other German-speaking countries and their literary cultures. By bringing together different languages and cultures, the Frankfurt Book Fair united those of similar intellectual interests so that at last a cross-border of intellectuals were able to meet, exchange ideas and forge friendships.
The Germanic world of Goethe, Beethoven and Schiller, which included German-speaking Switzerland and other outposts, has been brought together by publishers, scholars, poets, novelists and playwrights when circumstances permitted and the importance of translation, which crossed over national and language barriers, should not be forgotten.
Emil Brix, Ambassador of Austria to the Russian Federation and Former Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum London, celebrates NBG’s success and makes a compelling case for its continued importance:
It is certainly not always the case that brilliant ideas become excellent products and it is even less certain that such a product can keep going successfully for twenty years. Congratulations to New Books in German. When the journey of NBG started in 1996 I was the Director of the Austrian Cultural Institute in London. I remember my first contacts with Rosemary Smith and Tanja Howarth. They did not need much effort to convince me of the problem that British publishers sometimes publish German classics in English but – to say the least – not much contemporary fiction by German-speaking writers. I still think it was a brilliant idea of them to reach out to British publishers by providing publishers and an interested expert audience with edited material in English on a regular basis about new books in German. Austria supported this project from the very beginning. I personally liked the concept not only because it provided new chances for contemporary writers, for publishing houses, for the reading public, and for a closer connection between two literary worlds at the same time but also because it was such a fantastically simple idea. Today there is every reason that the project should continue, especially when we take into account that politics has a hard time convincing majorities in Europe about the advantages of open-mindedness and of reaching out to what is creative in our European literatures and cultures.
René Schaetti, Cultural Counsellor at the Embassy of Switzerland in the UK 1994-98:
Congratulations! 20 years of New Books in German, born in the late twentieth century and fit for the twenty-first. I was privileged to be a member of the creative Anglo-Austrian-German-Swiss enterprise led by the late Rosemary Smith. She was the spiritus rector of the highly-motivated group that put the journal on track and later became its first editor. I am deeply grieved that she is not with us to celebrate and take the liberty of dedicating this issue to Rosemary. Wishing New Books in German continued success in a bright future, I am already looking forward to celebrating its quarter-century anniversary.
Rebecca K. Morrison, former NBG Editor:
Looking back at my years as NBG editor, a vivid collage of impressions forms. Here, then, a kaleidoscope view of those most enriching years of my London life: meetings in Rutland Gate, Exhibition Road, Belgrave Square, Marylebone – and Frankfurt – with Austrian, German, Swiss and British colleagues and their ‘can-do’ attitudes; editorial hours with Rivers Scott, bridge to Fleet Street as was, learning the importance of every comma and word – an espresso and vodka marked each completed issue; lunch on an autumnal Polish Club terrace with Peter Florence and the delightful challenges he raised for the NBG presence at Hay – Lübeck, Venice, then the Festival itself followed; conferences in Austrian palaces – Max Reinhardt’s home in Salzburg and that freezing cold castle of the orientalist and translator Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall – beautiful Kachelofen, but now mere decoration; Swiss literature in baroque Solothurn and poetry in Vienna; waltzing to Strauss in London and in a Socialist dancehall in Leipzig; readings at Queen Mary, working with Professor Goerner and his MA students; the dramatised reading of Ingo Schulze’s Adam und Evelyn and the sense of a community of people passionate about literature at the German Embassy on what was to be my last reception as editor. Days of intellectual rigour, appreciation of fine writing, and of those who bring it out into the world: what a joy and a privilege.
Sally-Ann Spencer, former NBG Editor:
I was working half of the time in the Goethe- Institut London’s cultural department and half the time at NBG, so I was always shifting desks. Working from home posed the risk that I would have to dash out to find a fax machine: it was the only possible form of instant written communication with editorial consultant Rivers Scott. I still miss the huge piles of manuscripts and the literary conversations.
Hila Noori is an MA student at Queen Mary, University of London. Her dissertation focuses on ‘The History and Development of New Books in German’:
I see this project as a prime example of Anglo- German literary relations over a twenty-year period. Analysing the magazine shows how interests in genres of German literature and patterns of readerships have shifted. NBG was and still is the best way of changing the public perceptions of what German literature has to offer.
Charlotte Ryland has edited New Books in German since 2009.