These are fine times for German-language writing in translation. Stars like Jenny Erpenbeck and Daniel Kehlmann are becoming global household names, while critics continue rediscovering neglected luminaries like Ingeborg Bachmann and Nelly Sachs. The available literature is becoming more diverse, too, as evidenced by recent or upcoming translations of Selim Özdoğan, Ijuma Mangold and Sharon Dodua Otoo.
Predictably, Berlin is at the heart of the action. But far, far away – some 7000km, in fact – lies the home of an unlikely champion of translated German literature: the Calcutta-based publishing house Seagull Books. Founded in 1982, Seagull has spent the last two decades focusing on worldwide literature in translation (it also has offices in London and NYC). Its German List has gone from strength to strength since 2007, growing to over 150 titles, including work from the likes of Alexander Kluge and Elfriede Jelinek alongside younger, more obscure ones chiefly beloved by Germanisten. Berlin lit fans may recognise Lutz Seiler, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Inka Parei on the lineup.
“It’s grown organically and intuitively,” says founder Naveen Kishore, recent recipient of the 2021 Words Without Borders Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature. He likes to collaborate with translators – many of whom, like Katy Derbyshire and Lucy Jones, live in Berlin – and often follows their lead on selecting new books. This openness to suggestions brought about one of Seagull’s most fascinating projects: translating Reinhard Jirgl, the Berlin experimental novelist who won the 2010 Büchner Prize and later retired from public life. (Kishore still maintains a correspondence with Jirgl, exchanging letters some 40 pages long). This autumn sees the release of Jirgl’s highbrow detective novel The Fire Above, The Mountain Below, along with translations of crime novelist Friedrich Ani, prize-winning poet Durs Grünbein and East German dissident Franz Fühmann.
Seagull Books – whose titles are distributed by UCP in Europe and North America – is certainly reversing the usual stream of literary export. When they buy the rights to a book, they buy the rights worldwide, not just for India. “The West thinks you buy rights for the subcontinent and they’ll do everything everywhere else,” Kishore reflects. “But our money’s as good as everybody else’s, and we make good-looking books with the best translators. Why wouldn’t we publish books for the rest of the world?”