Hands Across the Water: A Dispatch

Jen Calleja dispatches from "Don't Mind the Gap: An Evening of British/German Literature at King's Place" in London

‘Don’t Mind the Gap: An Evening of German and British Literature’ at King’s Place, though clocking in at two hours, had an energetic, celebratory and comfortable atmosphere from start to finish. Though the venue was larger than the ICA’s cinema where I’d attended ‘Found in Translation’ the previous evening, it also felt like the more intimate of the two events.

Reading one after the other for ten-to-fifteen minutes apiece were some of the finest English- and German-speaking poets and writers working today: Durs Grünbein, Terézia Mora, Simon Armitage, A L Kennedy, Imtiaz Dharker, Marcel Beyer, Don Paterson and Alfred Brendel. All the authors’ texts were projected onto an updating screen, in English for the British writers to help German-speakers (which made a couple of the writers a little nervous, and even confused when they saw English behind them but half-expected to see themselves in German), and in English translation for the German writers.

These created two intriguing schisms. As a translator, I couldn’t help but follow the translations with great interest to see whether a word or order fitted my expectations, and when the British authors’ texts appeared, there would sometimes be a discrepancy, as if an older draft had been used for the projection: “lost” was said when “done” was read, “unintoxicating” was read then “unalcoholic” said. It was as if these projections were also translations or alternative versions of the original, revealing the pathways and decisions made in the production of the text.

“I changed it from Vauxhall to Volkswagen for tonight, you know, hands across the water,” Armitage jokes, after reading his unnerving poem “Hitcher” before making everyone laugh by offering someone a ride home. It’s pleasantly peculiar to listen to a poet that I studied over a decade ago in school reading new poems that sound so fresh and contemporary, as inclusive of the post-internet era as any next-gen poet.

Hungarian Mora reads animatedly in German with her hands in her pockets, giving her typical fixing stare out into the room as Zaya Alexander’s translation of an extract from her German Book Prize-winning novel Das Ungeheuere updates in paragraphs on the screen behind her. It holds everyone’s attention to the final word. Dharker, with her soothing Glaswegian accent, reads a series of stunning poems, the first so very right for the evening, is “In Wales, wanting to be Italian,” which perfectly sums up that feeling of wanting to be so very European, rather than boringly British. Her final poem, “Screensavers,” once again has an effortless nod to our technological age and how it can bring comfort through companionship.

Don Paterson comically resents tech immediately, regretting using an iPad to read “a bunch of sonnets (that’s the right collective term I think):” “I thought it would be ‘hipster’ and ‘cool’, but it’s just wanky,” His angered stare and put-upon tone bring power to his most moving poems and brilliantly offset the humour of being trapped in a lift, asked to write a poem about his hometown Dundee (that he hates) and Rilke, who hated dogs because “he identified with their pain too strongly.” Beyer’s resonating southern German accent brings a seriousness to his reading, a definiteness and heaviness that’s like a death knell in ‘Wasp, come’, and this boom remains as he says that “poetry is pure fun,” and as he warmly thanks his translator Karen Leeder.

A L Kennedy, always a comedian even when in the guise of a writer, jokes at the very European format of the evening— “More than one reader for more than three minutes—people will die!” —before questioning why she’s been invited. Of course it’s to read her prose that makes one feel on the spot, anxious, vulnerable, and human. Durs Grünbein looks younger than he did three years ago when I first came across him.

His poems, also translated by Karen Leeder, contain that element of surprise mixed with assuredness and are all satisfying wonders in themselves. Finally, Alfred Brendel takes a seat on the stage and reads poems that are like funny daydreams and private thoughts, over before they’ve begun. The audience laugh their way through his whole reading, which feels more like he is telling his memoirs in his conversational Swabian voice, his poem about being asked to play Othello opposite famous Hollywood actors is especially memorable, as is the wife murdering her husband for all womankind.

It crosses my mind that perhaps the venue wouldn’t have sold out if there hadn’t been the British participants as the “bait,” and some purists would question having the big names in British poetry “as a backbone” for a celebration of German literature. Unfortunately, interest in great foreign writers is still embarrassingly dire, and a great success of the event will be to remind those that came for Armitage or Dharker that there are poets and writers who are as highly regarded as their British counterparts in their own and other nations, but just so happen not to speak English.

Many of the writers are also wonderful advocates of the Anglo-German exchange: Marcel is Michael Hofmann’s translator into German; Paterson reads his take on “Little Aster” by Gottfried Benn that he was introduced to by his friends Hofmann and Grünbein; A L Kennedy gave this year’s outstanding Sebald Lecture. This aspect of friendship, kinship and mutual respect is what could possibly bring about the further transformation of English into a translation culture.


Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator from German, editor and curator based in London. She is The Quietus’ columnist for literature in translation and her articles and reviews have been published by the TLS, Huck and Modern Poetry in Translation. Her own short fiction has appeared in Structo and TEAM and she has been shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize 2015. She edits the Anglo-German arts journalVerfreundungseffekt, is former acting editor of New Books in German and is guest literary curator for the Austrian Cultural Forum London throughout 2015. She has translated prose and poetry for Bloomsbury, PEN International and the Goethe-Institut and is currently translatingNicotine by Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions.