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Novel set in 1960s Frankfurt, looking back to WW2

12th December 2019

The German House by Annette Hess, novel set in 1960s Frankfurt, looking back to WW2. Translated by Elisabeth Lauffer.

Novel set in 1960s Frankfurt

The German House has a very strong storyline about Nazi trials in Frankfurt in the 1960s. Eva Bruhns is the translator for some of the witnesses and victims of the atrocities, from Polish to German. Much of the book describes the trial and wider picture, which is harrowing not only for the reader but also those assembled in the courtroom

Eva still lives with her parents, sister Annegret and her younger brother Stefan. They own The German House, a restaurant that her parents still run, serving traditional German fayre. Her father is the chef, her mother front of house and Eva sometimes helps out. She has a younger brother Stefan, who still plays with toys, a dog called Purzel and a sister, Annegret, who is a nurse in the baby unit at the local hospital. Annegret is rather amoral and has a ‘naughty habit’ which is revealed as the story progresses. Eva is dating Jürgen Schoormann, who is the son of a wealthy family. He is clearly a controlling type and is very uncomfortable that she works and that she is working at the trials.

As Eva listens in to some of the testimonies, she has flashbacks, strong glimmers of familiarity. Gradually she comes to understand how her family – every family for that matter – has been implicated and affected by what happened in WW2.

This, I think is an important novel and it is one of three novels chosen to be published by new imprint HarperVia – “dedicated to publishing international voices, offering readers a chance to encounter other lives and other points of view via the language of the imagination“.

This is a novel that provides insight into the repercussions on a nation which is still adjusting to an insidious period in its history.

I enjoyed The German House very much but I did have some concern with the translation. At the end the translator affirms that she wanted to capture the voices and, she writes, the quick pacing of the narrative demanded a nimble, colourful language that contributes to the page-turning quality and reflects the dynamism that characterised the economic boom in post-War West Germany. It is indeed a very difficult thing to get the feel of a text and sufficiently unhook it from its mother tongue and slide it into the translated language. There is a lot of ‘Sprachgefühl‘ involved – a feeling, as it were, for the language that really cannot be quantified.

We often read books published by, for example Maclehose, Orenda Books and Europa Editions and they produce immersive stories that offer a nod to the original language but also significantly offer smooth and elegant prose.

The current cover

In this novel – and I have worked as a German translator myself – I could often hear the German rattling along in the background. The English (it is very American English in this case, which can itself be a bit of a hurdle sometimes) just so often didn’t sound somehow quite right. ‘Before‘ was used when ‘in front of’ might have felt more appropriate (the meaning being absolutely clear, yet the feeling of the language felt slightly skewed). Would one describe people’s body shapes as being narrow? Or would a dolmetscher describe herself as a translator from the Polish?  Looking for a new washing machine in the Hertie department store some characters submitted to the presentation of one of Hertie’s new models (perfect in German but quite dreadful in English); being out and about in town the characters wind up in the merry section of Berger Street. Of Jürgen we know that his mother had loved him reliably… And when Eva took a sip from her glass “she nipped at her glass” when drinking alcohol – the original German may well have been “sie nippte an ihrem Glas” – thus you can see how easy it is just to get the wrong nuance. To be frank the English often felt like a literal translation rather than a polished piece of prose.

My copy was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) so it is quite possible that some minor changes will have been made by the time the book becomes widely available, although it is unusual for there to be any major changes in the text. The multiple occasions of wooden translation notwithstanding this is a strong and very readable novel of Germany.

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