The three years at the tractor factory Tehnometal where I was a translator are missing. I translated the manuals for machines imported from the GDR, Austria and Switzerland. For two years I sat with four bookkeepers in the office. They worked out the wages of the workers, I turned the pages of my fat technical dictionaries. I didn't understand the first thing about hydraulic or non-hydraulic presses, levers or gauges. When the dictionary offered three, four, or even seven terms, I went out onto the factory floor and asked the workers. They told me the correct Romanian word without any knowledge of German – they knew their machines. In the third year a "protocol office" was established. The company director moved me there to work alongside two newly employed translators, one from French, the other from English. One was the wife of a university professor who, even in my student days, was said to be a Securitate informant. The other was the daughter-in-law of the second most senior secret service officer in town. Only those two had the key to the file cupboard. When foreign professionals visited, I had to leave the office. Then, apparently, I was to be put through two recruitment tests with the secret police officer Stana, to be made suitable for the office. After my second refusal, his goodbye was: "You'll be sorry, we'll drown you in the river. "
"the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency" [source]
I'll try not to crow too much about how I called the race in advance -- and, indeed, while I like the thought of having gained more literary prognostication street cred I was just the first to read the tea-leaves that were the betting patterns (and willing to admit to their significance). One lesson to be taken from this: the Swedish Academy has a big leak, and someone made a mint placing money on Müller at 50/1. That's two years in a row now (though since Le Clézio's odds started out much better not quite as much was won off his victory) -- and you can be sure everyone is going to follow the Ladbrokes odds very, very closely next year.
I was amused by the general reluctance to hop on the Müller-bandwagon once the odds started dropping so fast -- and admired Swedish Academy frontman Peter Englund's last-ditch effort (quite a masterstroke) of pointing elsewhere by saying the prize had become too Eurocentric, which was lapped up all over the place, leading to pieces on Handicapping the Nobel Prize Announcement: Roth? Murakami? Dylan??? and claims that: "A general consensus has been forming that an American may be picked this year" (not hereabouts !). (I do think Englund's comments were a signal, however (and perhaps a criticism of how this year's voting went): I'd bet even money someone outside Europe takes the prize in 2010.)
As with Le Clézio, getting one's hands on her books is going to be an issue: several have been translated into English, but not all are readily available (The Passport, anyone ? (probably the one I'd suggest people start out with, by the way)); information and links to the Amazon pages is up at the Herta Müller-page. (Way to go for the University of Nebraska Press, by the way: the second year in the row they have a book by the winning author .....).
So after a morning moving swiftly up the betting, Herta Müller has won the 2009 Nobel prize for literature. Having never come across her "phenomenal, moving and humbling" work before, my first thought was, of course, "Who?". But following closely behind came the thought that the Nobel prize committee should get out a little more.
Take a look at the list of laureates. The last five years have brought us Müller, JMG Le Clézio, Doris Lessing, Orhan Pamuk and Harold Pinter. Now, I don't want to pick a fight about the relationship between Turkey and Europe, but none of this is a very long haul from Sweden, is it?
The next few are little better. Elfriede Jelinek is from Austria, Imre Kertész from Hungary and Günter Grass from, um, Germany. JM Coetzee was born in South Africa and now lives in Australia, but it doesn't feel much like he's reporting from the southern hemisphere. VS Naipaul lives in Wiltshire, Gao Xingjian in Paris. Where are the representatives of the wider world?
Now it's easy to carp – and goodness knows, I'm as unfamiliar with the work of Ngugi wa Thiong'o as I am with that of Ko Un – but it's not my job to pick out "the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". If the Swedish Academy wants to throw off the impression that they're running a European club, maybe they should spend a few more kronor on some researchers.
But the Swedish Academy’s announcement on Thursday that the 2009 prize had gone to the Romanian-born German novelist Herta Müller — she is the 12th woman to win the Nobel in its 109-year history — caught more readers than usual off guard (Herta who?) and reinforced the Academy’s reputation for being defiantly, if predictably, unpredictable.
Every year, the Nobel Prize for literature is a source of surprises. This year's shocker? The committee's choice isn't much of a surprise at all. From publishers to critics, most agreed that Herta Müller was a good candidate for the award.
It takes more than a year for the annual prize to come to fruition. In autumn, the Academy writes to 300 nominating authorities worldwide — national academies, university faculties, writers unions and past Nobel winners — and by February, a list of 220 contenders has been assembled. Researchers open files on the nominees, but the duffers are obvious — “some names are absolutely unknown to us and they remain unknown”, says Wästberg. Others have been long-listed because of blatant lobbying, by, say, universities in a particular country; they too are summarily dismissed.
The list contracts, first to 25, then to 15. By May, only five writers remain, and the Academy convenes to approve the literature committee’s shortlist, before retiring for a summer’s intensive reading: the entire works of each of the nominees. That’s a breeze for Wästberg, a “compulsive” reader, he says. “I don’t have any other hobbies. I don’t play golf. I don’t collect stamps.” When he travels, he carries his books in plain covers, just in case he’s spotted.
Unwritten rules help the academicians through the summer. In 1938, the American Pearl Buck (mawkish tales of downtrodden peasants) swept to the prize on a wave of popularity. Now deemed unworthy, her sudden elevation led to a convention that no one should win the prize the first time they are shortlisted. In practice, since some, if not all, the five writers have been nominated before, the Academy has already chewed over their stuff.
“One digests a writer over several years. We do not make spontaneous choices,” says Wästberg. That’s why the prize can sometimes seem like an afterthought. In January 2005, an ailing Harold Pinter announced he had laid down his pen; nine months later he was Nobel laureate. He said it felt like he’d risen from the dead.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, says Wästberg. When he and his four committee men have assessed the contenders, they each write essays on every one of the authors. In September, the 25 articles are distributed to the Academy, and a further three weeks’ debate ensues. At the end of the month, a first vote is taken, ratified seven days later — usually in the second week of October — by a secret ballot. At last, the winner is phoned.
What strikes me about the American attitude is this reaction that seems close to outrage -- sort of: if we haven't heard of him or her the winner can't really be worthy. Pretty much everywhere else in the world -- including many places where these authors really haven't yet been translated into the local language, etc. -- the reaction seems much more open-minded: it's seen as an opportunity to learn about a new author. (Of course, the feeling is not universal: my new favorite Nobel-related headline is the IANS report: Nepal Maoists disapprove of Nobel for German author (yes, the Swedish Academy will never be able to please everybody: "Nepal's former Maoist guerrillas have denounced the award of the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature to German author Herta Mueller by the Swedish Academy Thursday, saying it reflected the institution's growing bias towards the communists").)
(Part of the knee-jerk reaction in the US is, of course, that many American commentators see the Swedish Academy as ultra-politicized, and the choice as a political (and purely 'Leftist' (don't ask me what they mean by that, but apparently Stalinism is the closest real-world approximation to the 'Leftism' they mean) one. I've never really seen the pattern here -- like I've mentioned: even in the past decade we've seen everything from Naipaul to Fo, Kertész to Jelinek -- but a vociferous American contingent thinks it's perfectly obvious: literary merit means little, politics ('Leftist' politics -- you, too, V.S., apparently) everything. (They really should get together with those Nepali Maoists and discuss this, shouldn't they ?) I'm sure they'll figure out a way to fit Müller into this scheme, too.)
For three of the past five years, the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been met in this country with pretty much the same reaction: a collective grinning nod (“Elfriede Jelinek, of course!”), a spate of quickly-dashed off background articles (consisting mainly of quotes from a hapless PR person at which small academic press publishes the winner), and a whispered chorus of “who?” The steady return of this response points to one of two things: either the Swedish Academy is playing an elaborate prank on American readers, selecting obscure avant garde authors to make us feel bad about ourselves, or Americans don’t read enough fiction in translation. Although I wouldn’t put it beyond the Swedish Academy to pull a prank like that, the real answer is probably the latter.
The statistics are cited often, but they are worth citing again. According to UNESCO, fifty percent of all translations published worldwide are translated from English, while only six percent are translated into English. And a large part of that six percent can be attributed to our English-speaking friends across the pond. A 2005 piece in the New York Times held that “of the 185,000 books printed in English in the United States in 2004, only 874 were adult literature in translation.” Depending on who you ask, these number are “shocking,” evidence of American readers’ insularity, and a “great shame.”
The writings of Herta Müller are indeed the product of an intense obsession, a unique, paranoid terror of being followed, held in suspicion, persecuted, of having to fight a pervasive and incomprehensible enemy, which is bent on defacing and and misrepresenting her. Her writing is Kafkaesque. But this doesn't explain her style, which is the other part of her work Her style is that of a poet or painter with surrealist roots, a Frida Kahlo maybe. This seems to have been Herta's primary vocation. We can only speculate about what her writing would have become if Romania were a free world. I'm certain she would still have been a great poet, but she would not have been Herta Müller.
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