Literature Away from Home: Jake Schneider on Translation, Little Magazines and More

Jake Schneider is the editor in chief of SAND, Berlin’s English literary journal. His translation of Ron Winkler’s poetry collection Fragmentierte Gewässer (Fragmented Waters) was released by Shearsman Books last October. He works as a freelance translator from German to English.

Interview by Chris Fenwick

SAND is an English-language journal based in a German city. How do you think it differs from journals in English-speaking countries?

SAND itself is a Berliner by birth, even if virtually everyone who’s worked on it over the past eight years is a Berliner by choice, born elsewhere and likely to move on eventually. This a city of fleeting convergences, eager arrivals and sudden departures, and all that history has left many layers of unique creative residue, which is why we aren’t just a direct transplant from some other place where English is the official language.

In cosmopolitan Berlin, English now represents a kind of horizontal communication, often between people who grew up speaking a third or fourth language. English is the language people arriving here speak. That makes it a symbol of inclusion, while German is a daunting gate that fresh Berliners who are serious about settling down can only pass with years of study and practice.

So yes, the “global” status of English comes at the heels of the British Empire and (fading) American hegemony. But that background is irrelevant to international Berliners trying to meet halfway for a conversation. Compared to the scenes in languages like French, Russian and Hebrew that are by nature less accessible to people from other countries, the English scene represents a semi-neutral internationalism.

Maybe if we at SAND had more homogeneous backgrounds, matching passports and a common frame of reference, we would be a little more like those other English-speaking journals back “home.” But we simply don’t draw on a singular, default national experience. We don’t share any other home. Everything we publish is equally “foreign” and therefore equally relevant.

In addition to the expected Americans and Brits, we’ve featured contributors from all five continents, many of them living outside their countries of birth. For example, Avital Gad-Cykman, whose flash fiction piece “Two Peas” will appear in the new issue, is an Israeli living in Brazil who writes in English. (We’re very excited she’ll be here in person to read at the launch party this week.) Our team currently has at least seven nationalities. None of this is deliberate, but it certainly informs our perspective and the work we find interesting.

Is there a large readership outside of the city?

Our far-flung contributors do spread the word, and social media helps. We have a small following among a tightknit group of past contributors around Southeast Asia, and we’re now scheming on a collaboration with them.

For the moment, we sell (hand-delivered) copies at about 20 local bookstores as well as at events and through our website. It would be beautiful, but logistically tricky, to get copies onto shelves in more countries. Last year we added our very first international stockist, who’s been great to work with: the legendary Athenaeum in Amsterdam.

How would you describe the “literary scene” in Berlin? Or is the idea of a “literary scene” an illusion, since writing can be something of a solitary pursuit?

The literary scene in Berlin has been feverish lately. Writing itself is a solitary pursuit, but writers and other literary people need a community to provide inspiration and feedback, celebrate accomplishments and impress each other into producing more and better work.

Our friends at The Reader Berlin run a popular program of writing workshops and retreats. Then there are open reading series like the Fiction Canteen, Literally Speaking, and Whisky & Words. The English bookstores in town are constantly hosting events: St George’s in Prenzlauer Berg, Curious Fox in Neukölln, Shakespeare & Sons in Friedrichshain, and Another Country in Kreuzberg, to name just a few. And there are frequent book and magazine releases. Our own issue launch parties (coming up next on 19 May) always follow readings from the current issue with a long night of music, drinks, and dancing. Those things are important too.

Is there much cross-pollination between German- and English-speaking communities?

Language segregation is an unfortunate reality in a community built around words, and everything I just mentioned is firmly Anglophone. The much more expansive German scene, ranging from smoky and jokey Lesebühne evenings to philosophical panel discussions, is in many ways a parallel galaxy.

One exception to that disconnect is the writing-and-photography magazine STILL, which publishes original work in both languages and translations between them (including some of mine). Another outlier is the story of the Berlin-based British fiction writer Sharon Dodua Otoo, who recently switched to German and promptly won the very prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.

More often, it’s been easier for us internationals to team up. SAND took part in last year’s Stadtsprachen festival, dedicated to Berlin’s literature in many languages besides German, and will now be co-presenting a reading on 8 June with Parataxe, the event program that the festival spawned. The devotedly multilingual auslandSPRACHEN series in Prenzlauer Berg is also narrowing these gaps. And the Artichoke reading series, which features authors in different languages and prints translations in the program, is another valiant effort to reflect on the page (and onstage) the linguistic diversity we already experience in our daily lives.

The last issue of SAND published translations from German, Norwegian, Slovak and Vietnamese. How important is publishing translations for you?

For all its worldliness, English is still a limiting lens. Maybe I’m biased as a translator myself, but I’d be disappointed to print a whole issue of only English originals. Also, just being here has revealed some of what so many English-speakers are missing out on.

Despite our small circulation and modest funds, we’ve recently had the privilege to publish translations of pieces by Friederike Mayröcker, who has won so many high-profile prizes in Austria they’ve had to create more, and Dag Solstad, whom the New Yorker called “probably the most eminent Norwegian novelist” (forthcoming in Issue 15). We couldn’t be more honored to include such distinguished authors, but it’s shocking that the likes of us have access to the likes of them – just because their work exists outside the sealed dome of our supposedly “global” language.

What do you think of the concept of “world literature” – is it useful, or just an academic bandwagon?

The term “world literature,” especially when applied to the Global South, risks becoming patronizing, exoticizing or tokenizing like “world music.” If I’m annoyingly literal, we only have one world between us: Austen is world literature too.

It’s as though there’s a hierarchy of academic specificity. The farther culture gets from the Europeanized “comfort zone,” the more the finer details blur. By the time you reach overlooked, “marginal” territory, it’s all lumped together into miscellaneous Planet Earth.

What would it take to fill in the details?

The important thing is for us all to read widely. But that requires publishers to commission more translations and publish more widely. Which, in turn, requires institutional support, a receptive culture and a market of adventurous readers.

I think literary magazines make great nests for this chicken-and-egg problem – by exposing, in small doses, underrepresented writers that book publishers haven’t bet on yet.

You recently published a volume of translations of poems by Ron Winkler. Where did you discover his work and what drew you to it?

I originally found Ron’s work through a poet he was translating, Jeffrey McDaniel, who was teaching creative writing at my college eleven years ago. It was a byproduct of the exchange that is translation.

I enjoy Ron’s work for the same reason that Ron and I were both drawn to Jeff’s. His sense of humor, his fast-and-loose way with words, allows him to pry language apart and show us something beneath or inside it, something in the landscape that we wouldn’t have known to look at.

Which contemporary German poets should be better known in English?

Frankly, all contemporary German poets are unknown in English. I doubt that many serious readers of poetry in the US, where I’m from, could name a single living German poet.

That’s a real shame and completely related to the same chicken-and-egg problem – compounded by scarce money and the medium’s tendency to celebrate voices close to home. English publishing has some great ambassadors for poetry in German and other languages, all small and independent: Burning Deck Press (until their recent retirement), Shearsman Books (which published my Winkler translations), No Man’s Land, Two Lines, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, and Modern Poetry in Translation, just to name a few I’ve encountered or worked with.

But for now, these efforts remain exceptions to the rule: the overwhelming majority of poems never make it through customs. (Of those poets who have, at least somewhat, here is a sampling worth reading: Uljana Wolf, Ann Cotten, Hannes Bajohr and, again, Friederike Mayröcker. Uncoincidentally, the first three have personal ties to the US and the fourth is a living legend.)

What about English-speaking poets who ought to be better known in German?

Thanks in part to translations into German like Ron’s own and to ongoing, high-visibility institutions like the poesiefestival, the Internationaler Literaturpreis and Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, the situation is better in the Germanosphere. German letters are more outward-looking, and I’m often astounded at the American poets that German poets have read. But this is also a product of a lopsided cultural hierarchy that extends as far as sci-fi paperbacks. And could be related to Germany’s generally scarred self-image.

One big blind spot, I suppose, is right in front of German readers’ noses. There are poets writing in English, Turkish, Vietnamese and other languages right here, but international festivals and fellowships in this country often prefer to invite visiting writers from their “home countries” – who then fly away afterwards.

That’s an issue Stadtsprachen, auslandSprachen and now Parataxe have set out to remedy. Which reminds me: we should all be reading our very own superstar English-language novelist Nell Zink, even if she does live in the boondocks of Brandenburg.